Russia/Georgia: Slide to war?

Today’s New York Times has a story on a Georgian defector who is getting a lot of play in the Russian media with claims that Mikhail Saakashvili is mobilizing for a new war with Russia.

Does this lend credibility to speculation, which I reported yesterday, that Russia may be gearing up for a Georgian War II — with the goal of bringing down the hated Georgian government, humiliating the Americans, distracting the public from bad economic news, and justifying an authoritarian crackdown at home?  (Adrian Piontkovsky, one of the commentators I mentioned, also believes that this is a move by the “Putin faction” in the Kremlin to reverse the drift of real power from ex-President and current Prime Minister Putin to his appointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev.)

Perhaps; at least, the defector story certainly fits with a campaign to prepare public opinion for a new armed conflict with Georgia.  And it does coincide with imminent large-scale Russian military exercises in the Northern Caucasus, specifically in the annexed Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where the only possible opponent for Russian troops is Georgia.

That said, I stand by my view that a new war is highly unlikely.  It would mean a major, long-term rupture with the West, and I don’t think the Kremlin boys really want to find themselves locked into Cold War II with no one but Hugo Chavez, Raoul Castro, Hamas and (if he’s still around) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for company.  If Russia did succeed in installing a puppet regime in Tbilisi, it would mean de facto occupation, with a very high risk of getting bogged down in a protracted guerilla war.  This, at a time when nearby regions within the Russian Federation (Dagestan, Ingushetia) are already a powder keg, and things in Chechnya are not as stable as they’re reputed to be.  In short, it seems like so colossally stupid a move that even the Putinistas would (I hope) know better.

As I said yesterday, a far more likely scenario is long-term, low-level undeclared warfare aimed at intimidating, destabilizing, and discrediting the Georgian government.  The latest incident with the defector certainly fits with that pattern as well.  Barack Obama’s trip to Russia is coming up on July 5-6 — at the same time, as it happens, as the military exercises in the Northern Caucasus.  A strong message of respect for the sovereignty of Georgia (and Russia’s other neighbors on “post-Soviet space”) would be essential.

(Cross-posted to RealClearPolitics blogs.)

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