Early in the morning of April 16th, Georgian Interior Ministry agents arrested a young Russian man named Alexander Kuznetsov in the Georgian city of Gori. Kuznetsov had crossed into the disputed territory of South Ossetia a few days earlier, without applying for a Georgian visa, and then entered Georgia proper without legal authority to do so. The territory is internationally recognized as Georgian, but is now controlled by the Russian army after a pitched battle with Georgian forces that caused an international sensation last August.
Gori, located a Molotov cocktail's throw from the Ossetian border, is not just any city -- it is the most sensitive area of Georgia these days. In a report released a few days ago, Human Rights Watch confirmed that when Russian forces stunned the world by crossing into undisputed Georgian territory after driving Georgia forces out of Ossetia during the August war, they first attacked Gori. And they used cluster munitions that are banned by international law, killing civilians. HRW found that in total Russia killed 12 Georgian civilians and wounded another 38 using these illegal bombs. And Kuznetsov is not just any Russian. He's the leader of the "Nashi" organization, Vladmir Putin's Hilter-youth-style personality cult. The word "Nashi" in this context is best understood to mean "us Slavic Russians" and the organization (which has ties to the skinhead movement) makes political hay by attacking dark-skinned minorities in Russia, including Georgians. But their wider goal is to support anything and everything endorsed by Putin without question, and to virulently attack anyone who can be considered his "enemy." The Jamestown Foundation's Vladimir Socor reports that Kuznetsov intended to lay the groundwork for a convoy of vehicles carrying dozens of Nashi shock troops, by then already in Ossetia, to enter Georgia, travel on to the capital of Tbilisi and there stage various provocations designed to foment an international incident. Socor reports that statements given to the Georgians by Kuznetsov after his arrest corroborate "earlier reports that Nashi are being financed through the office of Vladislav Surkov, first deputy head of the Russian presidential administration" and that the activists were supported by the Russian military after entering Ossetia. Socor states: "Nashi's founding chief is Vasili Yakemenko, currently head of Russia's Committee for Youth Affairs (a state agency). Kuznetsov carried an endorsement letter from the Duma's Committee on Youth Affairs, requesting Russian officials along the way from Moscow to Tskhinvali to assist the ‘Moscow-Tskhinvali-Tbilisi Motorcade' in its mission."
In light of two recent events in Georgia, Kuznetsov's illegal presence there is particularly incendiary.
First, Russia has been engaged for months now in a massive military buildup in Ossetia, taking actions which Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer sees as preparatory to a second invasion of the country. Despite Russia's recent economic collapse, which has seen the value of the currency fall by one third, the stock market by two-thirds and inflation and unemployment skyrocket, the Putin regime is pursuing gigantic and aggressive increases in military spending. And second, Russia has simultaneously been aggressively seeking to destabilize the Georgian government by funding street protests by opposition groups in Tbilisi, obviously hoping for an overreaction by Georgian authorities which could become a pretext for invasion. So far, to his credit, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has not been waylaid by these actions, and has responded to every Russian provocation by simply calling elections and winning them. But his continued presence in Tbilisi is infuriating to the Kremlin after world leaders rallied to his aid during the August war, and the stormclouds are gathering. It now appears that, seeing the domestic opposition's efforts come to nothing, the Kremlin is calling in Russian reinforcements. As was the case in the August war, Russia can simply continue escalating its provocations until Saakashvili has no choice but to respond, and then invade. This wouldn't be the first time Putin has attempted to use Nashi to destabilize a foreign government. Nashi openly admits that it launched massive cyber attacks on the Estonia government back in 2007 after Russia fomented an insurrection by ethnic Russians in that former Soviet republic (such cyber attacks were also launched against Georgia last August), and Nashi was instrumental in organizing the riots on the ground in Estonia as well. After NATO imposed yet more delays on Georgia's admission, Russia may well have perceived that it had the go-ahead for a second assault on Tbilisi. NATO's only reservation about Georgia is its lack of political stability, a condition caused specifically by Russian aggression. As such, Russia may see an assault on Georgia as a no-lose proposition. If it unseats Saakashvili and seizes the country, so much the better -- but even if it doesn't, it sets back Georgia's cause with NATO many years. The only serious risk would be that NATO intervened militarily on Georiga's side even without admission, but seeing no such thing occur last August Russia has no reason to think it would happen now.