May 19, 2009
The Caucasus Tinder Box
The ominous storm clouds of war are gathering once again over tiny, besieged Georgia have shed their first droplets of conflict.
On May 13th, Russia stood alone against the entire Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in order to veto a measure proposed by Greece calling for the extension of the OSCE's monitoring assignment along the troubled border between Ossetia and Georgia, where war broke out last August. Not even Russia's erstwhile allies Belarus and Kazhakhstan would support the Russian demand that the OSCE recognize Russia's annexation of Ossetia following its invasion of Georgia. As Reuters reported: "U.S. and European Union officials regard an OSCE presence in Georgia as crucial to preventing further fighting between separatist and Georgian forces and mistreatment of civilians." Now, because of Russia's unilateral actions, which clearly echo the stony "nyet" plied so often by the USSR on the UN Security Council, that presence will disappear.
A week earlier, the courageous Russian defense expert Pavel Felgenhauer, writing for the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, had warned that "the situation in Georgia appears to be deteriorating rapidly." Russia-supported street protests in the capital, Tbilisi, began on April 9th, with opposition forces refusing to discuss any issue with the president other than the terms of his resignation. But they soon fizzled out when Saakashvili refused to be provoked. In early May, apparently frustrated with its inability to muster a political coup against Saakashvili and infuriated by NATO's insistence on going forward with joint military exercises in Georgia despite vehement Russian opposition, the anti-Saakashvili forces tried to instigate a military uprising.
The mutiny occurred at a tank base at Mukhrovani, some 30 kilometers east of the capital Tbilisi. The rebels at Mukhrovani were surrounded by Interior Ministry Special units, with army artillery and armor, and Saakashvili arrived at the scene in a theatrical showdown -giving the rebels one hour to surrender, which they did without firing a shot. The rebel officers were arrested, while privates were disarmed. Saakashvili specifically praised the Georgian army artillery officers, who in his words not only surrounded the rebels with guns, but were also prepared to open fire and that their dedication facilitated the early capitulation
Writing in the Moscow Times the amazing Yulia Latynina, heir apparent to the murdered firebrand journalist Anna Politkovskaya, had no hesitation in concluding that the Kremlin was behind the coup attempt:
Before the recent events in Georgia unfolded, we heard warnings all across the Internet that Georgian opposition would take to the streets and that Saakashvili's regime would fall on April 9. Meanwhile, Russia once again mobilized its forces along the South Ossetian border, as it had done in the weeks before the August war. Russian sent its tanks to Tskhinvali and dispatched its ships to patrol the Black Sea waters near Georgia. In short, everything was pointing to an imminent coup. That is what happened in 1978, when Babrak Karmal and the Moscow-backed People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan overthrew the Kabul government. Moscow later installed Karmal as president of Afghanistan. But that scenario seemed unlikely for Georgia. After all, where would the Kremlin find a Georgian version of Karmal? But it did find one -- and not just one but three: Kobaladze, Karkarashvili and Gvaladzeb [the arrested leaders of the coup].
Felgenhauer was equally blunt: "Moscow was already known to have been seeking ways to penetrate the Georgian military to recruit agents that could help establish a pro-Russian regime in Tbilisi." Latynina reminds us that Russia similarly signaled its shutoff of gas flows to Ukraine, furious that Ukraine had supported Georgia in the August war, and points out that the coup was only unsuccessful because of the ham-handed way in which the Kremlin went about it. She writes:
The failed coup certainly looked like something from the "Keystone Cops." The whole affair was rife with incompetence, if not idiocy, but this is no excuse. When plotting a coup, idiocy is an aggravating circumstance and not a mitigating one -- like when an intoxicated driver is guilty of causing a severe accident. It seems that the Kremlin does not understand that Georgia has emerged from chaos to become a full-fledged independent nation. Moscow can't orchestrate a coup in Georgia just by waving its little finger, as it did during the reign of Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Having failed to provoke internal tumult within Georgia, it looks for all the world like Russia is driving out the OSCE observers so there will nobody present to tell the tale when Russian forces once again cross the Georgian border and, this time, move decisively on Tbilisi to oust Saakashvili once and for all. Felgenhauer reminds us that a whole host of anti-Saakashvili Georgian rebels are now in exile in Moscow and "could be used in the future to form a military-backed pro-Russian government." He warns that Russian border guards have been moved to the front lines along the border with Georgia, replacing Ossetians and creating an incendiary situation where "any possible shooting incident on the ceasefire line will directly involve Russian soldiers, and can be used as a pretext for a new military invasion."
U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Moscow in July for a summit with Dimitri Medvedev. Hopefully, Russia will not have launched a full-scale invasion of Georgia before then. If it hasn't, Obama must make clear to Medvedev that the NATO alliance will not stand idly by and watch Russia gobble up Georgia the way the USSR gobbled of Czechoslovakia. Senator John Kerry has called for a special free-trade agreement with Georgia to be signed immediately in order to bolster Georgia's war-torn economy, and Obama should expedite that process. Leading Western experts on the region have issued a blunt warning about the risks of Russian aggression. Obama, however has been woefully derelict in publicly putting the Russians on notice, and this may well be seen by the Kremlin as encouragement.
Obama must speak out now, before it is too late and he is left with only military options.