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Does Russia Even Need To Invade Georgia?

  • Liz Fuller

Moscow has made clear it wants Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili replaced. But would a war achieve that objective?

Moscow has made clear it wants Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili replaced. But would a war achieve that objective?

Nearly nine months after the war between Russia and Georgia last August, the situation surrounding the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remains tense.

Some observers, including former European Commission Ambassador to Georgia Denis Corboy, have warned that fighting in the region could flare up again within the next few months.

They suggest that Russia's aim is to gain control of the export of Caspian hydrocarbons, but Russia could accomplish that objective without recourse to a new war by exerting the right kind of pressure on Azerbaijan, at present the sole source of oil and gas for the export pipelines that traverse Georgian territory.

Moscow would also dearly like to see Mikheil Saakashvili replaced as president of Georgia by a more compliant and predictable figure. But again, a new war would inevitably have the effect of rallying Western support solidly behind Saakashvili.

The harsh Western rejection of the Georgian opposition's ongoing campaign to force Saakashvili to step down suggests that Saakashvili, for all his multiple failings as a leader, is still regarded as the sole guarantor of political stability and the most committed adherent in Tbilisi to an unequivocally pro-Western foreign policy. And clearly a new war is not the most economical and least messy way of getting rid of Saakashvili.

Saakashvili himself said in mid-April he sees little likelihood of a new war. "It's true that now the concentration of the Russian [forces] within [the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia] and outside Georgia exceeds the scale of last August," Saakashvili told journalists on April 14. "But I still think that in fact there is currently no situation for Russia to renew any large-scale military adventure."

Military Movements

The Russian General Staff must have analyzed in minute detail the course of last summer's five days of hostilities, and now has an even better understanding of the weaknesses of the Georgian armed forces. (Those weaknesses, and proposed measures to overcome them, were listed in the "Strategic Vision for 2009" Georgian Defense Minister David Sikharulidze unveiled in February.)

Western military intervention in support of Georgia remains as much of a chimera now as it was last year. Meanwhile, the Russian military continues to send mixed signals, reportedly deploying additional hardware to the headquarters in Mozdok, North Ossetia, of the 58th Army -- the force that spearheaded the incursion into South Ossetia last August -- and ultramodern T-90 tanks to Abkhazia.

On May 25, it was confirmed that Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, who commanded the Russian operations in Abkhazia in August 2008 and served in both Chechen wars, has been named commander of Russia's Airborne Troops. If Moscow is indeed planning to invade Georgia, Shamanov is arguably the most appropriate candidate for that post; but the fact that he has been appointed to it does not necessarily mean that such an invasion is inevitable, merely that the Russian leadership, both military and civilian, is prepared for all eventualities.

At the same time, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Aleksandr Kolmakov announced on May 20 that Russia may deploy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia fewer than the 3,700 troops it initially planned to station in each republic. "We have no reason to deploy all [the planned] personnel at military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Part of the contingent could be deployed in Russia [close to the border]," Kolmakov was quoted as saying.

In Abkhazia, however, the anticipated decrease in the number of Russian Defense Ministry troops will be compensated for by the deployment, in line with the interstate agreement signed in late April, of some 1,300 federal border guards. The Border Guard is subordinate not to the Defense Ministry, but to the Federal Security Service (FSB).

If Russia does indeed plan a new attack on Georgia, the question arises: would it be more advantageous for it to do so while the Czech Republic still holds the EU Presidency, or wait until Sweden takes over on July 1? Czech President Vaclav Klaus rejected as totally inappropriate Saakashvili's comparison of Russia's strikes against Georgia last August with the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

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