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CAUCASUS UPDATE

In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009

Independent Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer has warned in recent weeks that the confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi could soon re-erupt. Mr Felgenhauer has gone so far as to put a timeframe on the renewed war – sometime between May and October, when the snow melts and transit through the Caucasus mountains is relatively easy.

Mr Felgenhauer has a formidable track record when it comes to Russia-Georgia issues. In particular, he predicted the onset of last summer’s war long before it happened. His warnings on the subject should not be taken lightly. Nonetheless, the author of this Update remains unconvinced that a new war between the two sides is approaching.

The analyst gives two, subtly different, predictions of how a new war would begin. The first supposes that Russia would provoke a new conflict by the deliberate introduction of Russian troops into the volatile border regions between Georgia and breakaway regions Abkhazia/South Ossetia. “Any injury of Russian soldiers that could be attributable to Georgian forces,” writes Mr Felgenhauer, “could serve as a casus belli.” This suggests that the Russian government would, if not actively encourage such injuries, certainly create the conditions for them to occur.

The second prediction holds that these injuries or deaths would not be so carefully stage-managed, but would arise from the unpredictable violence that regularly flares on the borders. The deaths of Russian or Georgian servicemen would, Mr Felgenhauer believes, provoke a significant military response from the highly strung authorities in Moscow or Tbilisi. The difference, in other words, is between a deliberate incident and an accidental one.

The problem with the ‘accidental provocation’ theory is that, in Moscow’s case (Georgia is slightly different, and will be discussed below), it would need an additional reason behind its response - it has nothing to fear in any strategic or political sense from Georgia. In other words, any Russian response would require a motive beyond just immediately punishing Georgia for its ceasefire violations, and thus would be essentially pre-planned and not ‘accidental’.

The comparison with Israel and Hamas is Gaza is instructive here. Israel, in this case analogous to Russia, invaded Gaza not simply because of the rocket fire pouring out of the Strip in December, but because this allowed it to attempt a long-planned, long-anticipated operation to overthrow Hamas. The key difference with Russia is that unlike Israel, a significant section of Russia’s population is not within range of Georgian weaponry. Russia does not view Georgia as an existential threat living cheek-by-jowl with its civilians, as Israel does Hamas. South Ossetia does see Georgia in this way, of course, but Russia will only intervene to protect Tshkinvali if doing so coincides with its own interests, as the August war plainly demonstrated. Occasional shooting matches with Georgian police place no psychological stress on the Russian people north of the Caucasus mountains.

This prompts us to look for a Russian motive for returning to full-scale war. The clearest reason would be to ‘finish the job’ of the August war and unseat President Saakashvili, personally loathed by the Russian leadership. Arguably, Moscow failed to do so last August because of the energetic peacemaking efforts of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and is now hoping that popular opposition to his rule will force him out of office. If the protests are met with force, Mr Felgenhauer suggests, Russia will use this as a pretext to ‘liberate’ the people of Georgia, thus removing Saakashvili, killing off its NATO chances, and providing an overland supply route to its isolated military base in Armenia, which Mr Felgenhauer argues is key to Russian dominance in the South Caucasus and which can no longer be supplied through Georgian territory.

The logistical issue with Armenia aside – which, in any case, could be solved if the border between Armenia and Turkey re-opens in late April, as rumoured – these reasons are not rational choices for the Kremlin to make. NATO membership for Georgia is more or less dead in the water for the present, and no Russian assault on Georgia would persuade the Alliance to drop its ‘eventual membership’ offer. Furthermore, no serious presidential candidate in Georgia would alter the country’s strategic orientation away from Russia and towards the Euro-Atlantic area so that, beyond proving personally satisfying to President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin (and this is a factor which should not be discounted), toppling President Saakashvili would not alter the bigger picture.

The costs of another intervention would far outweigh the marginal benefits. Mr Felgenhauer argues that the call from the White House to ‘reset relations’ with Russia “may be interpreted as a tacit recognition of Russia's right to use military force”. On the contrary it seems that, while Russia is still cautious towards the Obama administration, it is generally looking forward to a cooperative relationship on a range of issues, including Afghanistan and arms reduction. Although berating America, and its Georgian ‘proxies’, is a useful domestic tool during a severe recession, the Kremlin still has enough political capital to be pragmatic towards Washington. Re-invading Georgia during the first year of Obama’s presidency would force him to take a firm line and would provoke a major rift with Europe. Although Russia paid very little diplomatic cost for the August war, another conflict would cause unnecessary complications for the Kremlin, particularly if it actually involved the overthrow of an elected government. Although assuming that Russia will act rationally is always a risky game, in this case the cost/benefit ratio is clearly not on Moscow’s side, as it arguably was last year. If nothing else, the financial costs of invading and occupying Georgia should make the Russian leadership think twice.

Georgia is, as remarked, a different case. Opposition figures are circling like sharks and, although struggling to present a united front, are committed to mass rallies on April 9 calling for President Saakashvili to step down. There are three questions here. Firstly, does the situation in Georgia permit the resumption of war? The chances of an ‘accidental’ war are slim. A leaked Pentagon report in November stated that, among other things, Georgia’s military decision-making was crippled by top-down, tightly controlled decision making, which suggests that, if nothing else, the leadership has the ability to rein in overly bold actions by local commanders. In any case, the Georgian military has been so demoralised by the August war that it is psychologically unprepared for a new war. The losses of experienced officers and expensive hardware have also crippled its operational capacity. Tbilisi’s unwillingness and inability to use force is illustrated by its unilateral decision to restrict heavy weapon deployment in the border zones. The chances of Georgia starting a new war are slim. It would quite simply be crushed.

What situation vis-à-vis Russia will benefit President Saakashvili? The August war brought a surge of national unity, but that swiftly broke down over questions about his role in launching the conflict. Another full-scale conflict, whoever provoked it, would provide a very short respite but would ultimately destroy President Saakashvili’s remaining authority when Georgia was inevitably, swiftly defeated. He surely knows this. Whilst he fights for his political life he has no interest in inviting more destruction on Georgia. His best interest is peace, for now. Western diplomats are allegedly concerned about how tense the authorities in Tbilisi are, but their lack of military capability should deter adventurism.

Thirdly, what would benefit the opposition? Another war would probably lead to the collapse of the Saakashvili administration, but this does not mean that any opposition figures would be happy to see Russian tanks in Tbilisi. Most share President Saakashvili’s loathing of the Kremlin, even if they express it less bombastically than he does. Using Russian support or funds to gain power, as some have been rumoured to be considering, would be politically disastrous. We will not see a Russian-installed puppet in Tbilisi.

One can never be sure, of course. Russia is inscrutable and Georgia is unpredictable. Many people (this author included) refused to believe that Russia would ever invade Georgian territory and recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence. But in 2009 there seems little reason to restart large-scale hostilities. Russia’s only two conceivable goals – to resupply the Armenian base and to topple the Saakashvili administration – are not sufficient to provoke a diplomatic crisis with a new American government and with Europe. If Russia had truly been hell-bent on removing President Saakashvili, they would have done so in August. They held back, it seems clear, because toppling Georgia’s government was simply not worth it, when the other objectives (stopping the NATO process and humiliating the Georgian army) had already been accomplished. There is no reason for this strategic calculus to have changed in the last six months.



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