Caucasian Crisis Communication

There seems to be a dangerous crisis in progress between Russia and Georgia. During the past week, the Georgians have surrounded the headquarters of the Russian forces in Georgia with policemen and arrested four officers of the GRU (Russian military intelligence) for allegedly spying and conspiring with opponents of the government, in order (so they say) to prevent further integration of Georgia with NATO. On top of that, the Russians have been evacuating nationals from Georgia, and have also announced a stop to the withdrawal of their troops from the country.

Yesterday, the Russian “peacekeeping force” in South Ossetia complained of being overflown by Georgian Sukhoi-25 (NATO name Frogfoot) aircraft, the Soviet answer to the A-10. Before that, the Georgians had accused “somebody” of firing a Strela-2 man portable SAM at President Saakashvili’s helicopter, whilst a group of US senators were aboard. And the Russians have also complained that “new NATO states” have been selling Georgia arms.

Today, a border incident resulted in an Abkhasian man being killed and two Georgian police wounded, the first time in this round of the conflict that the trouble includes Abkhasia. This could yet get very serious indeed-it doesn’t take a Kissinger to realise that all kinds of complicated strategic interests and ethnic/religious identities are involved.

How much EU or NATO support can Georgia count on? Or will the EU seek to reassure Russia?

26 thoughts on “Caucasian Crisis Communication

  1. I would compare this situation with France -Italy WM final game. Materazzi provocated and Zidane and France lost the game. In Georgia – Russia case it’s more than provocation from georgian side, because their are elements of truth in detention of GRU. Russia even did not denied, that they were GRU agents… So, I think russia is now naked and everybody sees that. Russia’s evil politik against Georgia became so obvious after Spy Scandal, that all EU and NATO need to do in supporting Georgia, is to watch at russia’s reactions and objectivly respond to them.

  2. What’s raising the temperature (IMO) is the Russian-backed plan to hold a referendum on independence for South Ossetia.

    The referendum will be held in November. Russia has strongly suggested that it will recognize the results, possibly including formal recognition of Ossetian independence. (There’s a widespread belief that Russia wants to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Deserves a post of its own.) This obviously has the Georgians annoyed no end.

    …I don’t really see a good outcome here. The Russians aren’t going to let Abkhazia and South Ossetia go; the Georgians aren’t going to give up their claims. Best case-scenario is the status quo; but the problem with that is, the slow passage of time gradually strengthens the Russian position.

    Doug M.

  3. The problem is, though, that the Russians are violent enough and the Georgians have enough little country nationalism for one side or the other to start shooting.

  4. It’s hard to see the Georgians being dumb enough to push this.

    They have shown a real willingness to poke the Kremlin in the eye, as witness their recent roundup of Russian security agents. (Apparently Moscow isn’t even bothering to deny that they were really spies.) Since Putin’s Russia gets very cranky about not being given its proper respect, this is no small thing.

    But I have trouble imagining them pushing it to open war. Russia would have to intervene, and Georgia knows that.

    Doug M.

  5. The South Ossetia referendum is part of a bigger picture that also includes the one in Transdinestria and the Kosovo status talks – I would imagine that Russia will demand the west forces Georgia to accept independence or annexation for Abkhazia & South Ossetia in return for letting the west get its way on Kosovo.

  6. Georgia is pro-West, but I’m not sure that the feeling is mutual. The West doesn’t want a shooting war, even a small one, with Russia. If Georgia tries to reassert its borders by force, I suspect the West is willing to let it try, and recognize the result in the unlikely event that it succeeds, but not willing to support the effort with much in the way of men or materials.

    Russia already does de facto occupy S. Ossetia and Abkhazia, and already has what it wants in terms of a lever against Georgia and against the Kosovo process. I’m not sure it’s a great lever against Georgia, because I’m not sure that at this point in time, Russia could give the territories back to Georgia, even if it wanted to, because Georgia would still have to go through the effort of pacifying them by force. On the other hand, extending its presence into territory still controlled by the Georgian government goes into the realm of drawing a NATO response (based out of where? Turkey?), and so Russia is reluctant to do this.

    Harrassing Russian nationals is the one means Georgia has at its disposal to express its frustration without starting a shooting war, and it could probably do this ad infinitum without escalating. The situation in Kodori Gorge, however, does have the potential for escalation, because real militaries are already involved.

  7. It would have been difficult to deny they were spooks of one sort or another – they were GRU, Military Intelligence, and on the Russian base there they would have been in uniform.

  8. Whoops, there goes one balloon: Russia just closed the border with Georgia.

    No land traffic, and — as of 20 minutes from now — no air traffic either.

    This should be interesting.

    Doug M.

  9. On the other hand, extending its presence into territory still controlled by the Georgian government goes into the realm of drawing a NATO response

    Shooting at Russians for Georgia’s sake? Turkey has to live with Russia for a long time, as has the rest of Europe. If Russia really wants to occupy these areas, it can.

    Harrassing Russian nationals is the one means Georgia has at its disposal to express its frustration without starting a shooting war, and it could probably do this ad infinitum without escalating.

    This works both ways and hurts Georgia more than Russia.

  10. Mind you, the Russians have already been exerting nontrivial economic pressure on Georgia. Was this an attempt to get it lifted, or alternatively to create a crisis that would force the West to pay off the Georgians in order to maintain tranquillity with Russia?

  11. Well, so now we know..BBC: Ferrero-Waldner wants the Russians to lift the embargo, says it’s got to happen “very, very soon”.

  12. It’s nice to see that Oliver is consistently a Russian apologist, no matter what they do.

    International law is pretty clear in some respects here. That’s why Putin ordered the resumption of the evacuation of the Russian bases. I’m also sure some people in Russia are leery of holding mock referenda to carve away areas from neighboring states. What works for Abkhazia and certain parts of South Ossetia would also work for Chechnya, Ingushetia, Tatarstan, and Kaliningrad.

    I think this is sabre-rattling, but I don’t think Russia will pull the trigger. The more Russia squeezes Georgia, the more Georgia seeks friends in the West. These kinds of activities will also make Azerbaijan, the Baltics, and the Central Asian states very nervous. That’s more than Russia is willing to risk right now, especially as oil prices keep dropping.

  13. Kaliningrad is Russian. All the Germans were deported. But there are many more areas which have large non-Russian minorities.

    The reason why Georgia is important is because it will be part of the Northern Iranian-European gas pipeline. Not that anybody is planning for it because it is a mute point as long as Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine need Russian gas.

  14. “The reason why Georgia is important is because it will be part of the Northern Iranian-European gas pipeline.”

    There’s already one big oil pipeline running through Georgia — the BTC, which opened a few months ago, connecting Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean via Georgia and Turkey.

    This has already affected regional politics. In earlier confrontations between Russia and Georgia, Azerbaijan generally took the Russian side. Now they’re being more cautiously neutral, because if the Georgians got upset enough, they could turn off the pipeline… and that pipeline makes Azerbaijan about $2 million a day.

    So Georgia won’t run out of oil. They will run out of natural gas, though, which is what heats their houses and keeps their electrical grid alight.

    “Not that anybody is planning for it because it is a mute point as long as Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine need Russian gas.”

    Armenia is heartily sick of being collateral damage in the Georgia-Russia squabble. They’ve been dependent on Russian gas delivered through Georgia. But that’s about to change, because Armenia has been very rapidly building a natural gas pipeline down to Iran.

    The Russians put heavy pressure on them to limit the volume of the pipeline (so they could only import enough gas to keep themselves warm, not enough to sell on forward to Georgia). The Armenians agreed; they hold no brief for Georgia, they just don’t want to freeze in the dark because Tbilisi and Moscow can’t get along.

    The Iran-Armenia pipeline should be finished around the end of this year. Meanwhile, the Armenians have gone to some trouble to stockpile several weeks supply of gas. They also have some hydro (some of it stolen from Azerbaijan… don’t ask) and a nuke plant. Fingers crossed, they should be OK.

    Doug M.

  15. Oil is not important as it is easy to transport. Does Georgia even have a refinery otherwise having an oilpipeline is mute?

    IIRC the pipeline is big enough to also support Georgia

  16. Georgia has two refineries — a big one outside Tbilisi and a little one in Sartichala — and is considering a third.

    …oil is “easy to transport”? Um, okay.

    Doug M.

  17. Compared to gas it is. I notice someone blew up the Iran-Turkey gasline last week. Impressive for the sheer variety of possible culprits.

  18. It’s nice to see that Oliver is consistently a Russian apologist, no matter what they do.

    Geography changes rarely in human timescales, demographics and natural resources only in decades.
    Nevertheless, this is not strictly true. Russia occupying all Georgia would be another matter. But Russia would not do that.

    That’s more than Russia is willing to risk right now, especially as oil prices keep dropping.

    A little bit of decisive action might help on the latter front.

  19. Oliver,

    I have no idea what you are talking about here. 20 years ago, Gorgia was part of the Soviet Union under a repressive Communist regime, not it is a somewhat corrupt democracy fighting off Russia. What precisely in the demographics or geography has changed so radically in the past twenty years to produce such a change in people’s lives? Politics and ideas do matter.

    It does look now like Russia is not going to back down. The sanctions continue, and now Russians are trying to put all the Georgians in Russia out of business. To me this is increasingly looking like Russia wants to treat Georgia the way the US treated Panama fifty years ago.

  20. Politics and ideas do matter.

    They do. Nevertheless geography is important. What is sensible from the viewpoint of somebody on another continent need not be sensible to anybody in continental Europe.

    To me this is increasingly looking like Russia wants to treat Georgia the way the US treated Panama fifty years ago.

    Yes. And nobody was stupid enough to stand up for Panama.

  21. For what it’s worth, John Robb reckons Russia might be vulnerable to Georgian sabotage of its oil pipelines. Can’t see it myself, as none of them run through Georgia. But there are a lot of Georgians in Russia.

  22. I don’t see it either — the Chechens never attacked Russia’s pipelines.

    Still, it’s an interesting notion.

    Doug M.

  23. And, as a commenteer over at J-Ro’s says, the Chechens are a lot better at terrorism and guerrilla warfare than the Georgians.

    Meanwhile the BBC reports that Russian schools have been ordered to draw up lists of pupils with Georgian surnames. That doesn’t sound good.

  24. Nobody wants Chechens to win (keep fighting is something else) but the White House does wants to see Russia loose in Georgia

  25. The White House has a strategy on Georgia?

    I’d love to see a cite for that. (No mouth-breathing, please.)

    Russia: Caucasus :: US : Central America is an interesting comparison, but it breaks down fairly quickly. On one hand, Central America was never part of the US. On the other, there were no other powers with major interests there — the short-lived Soviet presence in Nicaragua was strategic speculation, nothing more. The Caucasus is a region of nontrivial interest to Western Europe, the US, and the two regional powers, Iran and Turkey.

    And, of course, the US never had a strategic near-disaster in Central America to compare to the Russian experience in Chechnya.

    That’s what comes to mind when I hear people wondering how bad this can get. Paradoxically, it makes me think /not so bad/. Why? Because I can’t see Putin sending ground troops into Georgia; and I can’t see Saakashili getting deposed any other way. Killed, okay, but not overthrown.

    So, while there may be much yelling and shaking of fists on both sides, it shouldn’t become a shooting war unless someone is *very* stupid. And if it doesn’t, eventually there’ll be a realization that nobody is going anywhere, and things will cool down.

    (Though, this being the Caucasus, that could take a while — the Armenia/Azerbaijan border has been closed since 1992, and counting.)

    Doug M.

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