Today’s New York Times has a harsh editorial castigating Moscow’s latest exercise in stupid self-assertion:
In a depressing sequel to its petty and destructive war against Georgia last summer, Russia has now cast a petty and destructive veto in the United Nations Security Council, compelling the abrupt withdrawal of 130 badly needed international military monitors from Georgia’s secessionist region of Abkhazia.
It was petty because Russia’s larger interest lies in calming, not stirring up, secessionist ambitions in the Caucasus, a violently fractured part of the world that includes other restive regions like Chechnya. And it was destructive because whatever hopes the Russian-backed Abkhazian separatists might still retain for a semblance of international legitimacy vanishes with the withdrawal of the United Nations mission.
Moscow’s heavy-handed meddling has isolated Abkhazia, and Russia. Only Russia and Nicaragua recognized the “independence” Abkhazia proclaimed after the Russian incursion last summer. This month Russia voted alone in the Security Council to evict the monitors.
They could have added that Russia suffered an embarrassing setback in its quest for recognition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia when former pal Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus took the first half a $500 million loan that was a tacit bribe for recognition, and then didn’t come through.
The Times is quite right that further destabilization and growth of separatism in the region would be detrimental to Russia more than anyone else; hardly a day goes by without deadly violence, including assassinations of high-level officials and military officers, in places like Ingushetia and Dagestan. But of course, for the Kremlin leadership, muscle-flexing and ego-tripping counts for a lot more than such practical considerations.
Meanwhile, Russia is planning large-scale military exercises near the Georgian border; not only will these exercises take place in “independent” Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but they are pretty clearly directed at Georgia — at the very least, to send a signal. Adrian Piontkovsky, writing on Grani.ru (Russian text), speculates that Russia may be preparing for Georgian War II.
Piontkovsky writes that there are simply too many similarities to last summer’s buildup to the war: Russian military exercises in the area, talk among experts and the military about the inevitability of armed conflict, complaints from the Russian foreign ministry about Tbilisi’s “provocations.” He quotes one Vakha Gelayev, a former fighter from the Vostok (“East”) batallion — a pro-Russian Chechen batallion that participated in the Georgia war last August — as saying:
A new Russian-Georgian war will happen. The Russians are getting ready for this war. Everyone in the Northern Caucasus is talking about it. Russian generals get drunk and they all keep blabbing that there’ll be a new war this summer.
Piontkovsky goes on to write:
As for the strategic, military, and foreign policy goals of this war, [they include] regime change, the destruction of the Georgian army, occupation of Georgia, control over the Caspian’s energy resources, and a show of humiliation of the hated pindosy [Americans].
There are domestic political goals as well. For the Putin faction, a second war in Georgia would be an ideal opportunity to end, once and for all, to the increasing ambiguity in the Kremlin. The “national leader” [i.e. Putin] will sharply change the currently bleak political agenda to his own advantage.
Piontkovsky speculates that in the event of Georgia War II, Putin will make a triumphant return as President while Medvedev will resign and get the chairmanship of the Russian Constitutional Court (a position equivalent to Chief Justice in the United States) as a consolation prize. He also believes that the decision on whether to go to war will be made right after July 6, when the military exercises wrap up — and, (not) coincidentally, Barack Obama completes his visit to Moscow. In his view, whether Obama will show what the Kremlin perceives as weakness on his Russia trip may well determine the outcome.
While Piontkovsky’s analysis is often astute, the prospect of Georgian War II seems very unlikely to me. For one thing, unless the Russians plan to use hypnotists on Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, he’s not about to walk into their trap a second time, as he did last August. Also, while the European response to Georgian War I may not have been particularly forceful, it did badly sour EU-Russia relations for many months, and Russia was able to partly repair the damage by swearing up and down that its military action was a response to a unique situation. With a repeat, a “fool me once, shame on you” reaction is quite likely, and I don’t see any evidence that Russia is prepared to throw away its already frayed relationship with the EU.
What’s far more likely is long-term, low-level undeclared warfare, which could still end up doing a lot of damage. Which is why a strong signal of support for Georgian sovereignty and stability from Obama would indeed be very important.
(Cross-posted to RealClearPolitics blogs.)