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Ex-Ambassador Says 'Evidence Mounting' Of New Russian Offensive In Georgia

Denis Corboy, who is also the director of the Caucasus Policy Institute of the London King's College, at RFE/RL's bureau in Tbilisi
Denis Corboy, who is also the director of the Caucasus Policy Institute of the London King's College, at RFE/RL's bureau in Tbilisi
In a recent opinion piece in "The New York Times," three former diplomats called on the United States to lead efforts to prevent a "new tragedy" in Georgia. Citing Moscow's military buildup in the country and its resentment over the "unfinished business" of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the authors -- former U.S. Ambassadors to Georgia William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz, and Denis Corboy, the former European Commission ambassador to Georgia -- argue that the West must step in to prevent a fresh escalation of violence. Corboy was recently in Tbilisi, where he spoke to RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili.

RFE/RL: What inspired you and your two fellow former ambassadors to write the opinion piece for "The New York Times"?

Denis Corboy: What we felt, from putting everything together, were indications that Russia could be preparing for another conflict when it suits their agenda -- but probably in the latter part of the summer this year. We hope we're wrong, but we were so alarmed at the evidence that we decided to try to write a message. This concern, by the way, has even heightened since we wrote this piece.

RFE/RL: Why do you think it is heightened?

Corboy: The evidence is mounting. You're aware, of course, of the Russian army being on the border of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But if you look at the hardware they have, it's not border-keeping hardware, it's more war hardware. If we look at the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, we see types of equipment there which we find strange.

Then put all this together with the rhetoric -- starting off with the gross exaggeration of the danger to Russia caused by the Partnership for Peace NATO exercise [currently under way in Georgia], which is an annual event which Russia knows very well doesn't pose any danger. Then there is the rather new, negative attitude toward the Eastern Partnership, which as you know is a voluntary arrangement with the European Union which concerns matters like visas, trade, and improving the lives of people.

It's an alarming situation, and what we felt was that the international community might not be fully aware of how dangerous it could be. And if you look at the internal Georgian situation, and the domestic crisis here, the people within Georgia don't seem to be aware that what Georgia could be facing -- and looks to us as if it is facing -- is the most serious crisis since independence in 1991.

Caspian Grab?

RFE/RL: What is Russia's aim in Georgia? Does it simply want to maintain its sphere of influence?

Corboy: We feel that there is a Russian objective -- and a very important one -- to gain control over energy from the Caspian on both sides of the sea. They also want to have a political veto on the politics, particularly foreign policy, of the countries of the South Caucasus.
Russia must realize in advance that they would pay a higher price than what they had to pay for last August's tragic events in South Ossetia.


Our feeling is that when [U.S. President] Barack Obama works on the "reset" button, particularly at the July 6-8 meeting in Moscow, a red line needs to be drawn for our Russian friends with regard to manipulating the situation in Georgia in a way that would lead to another conflict.

This is obviously not as important as issues like Pakistan and Afghanistan, getting nuclear disarmament talks going, Iran, the Middle East, Korea. All these things are very important. But we should not allow Russia to trade these things against regaining control over its own back garden here. And that is why we're sounding the alarm.

'Red Line'

RFE/RL: You mentioned a red line. What would happen to Russia if that line is crossed? What is the West capable of?

Corboy: Russia would have to be made aware, absolutely clearly, that crossing that red line would mean that the reset button could not continue. It's a very difficult thing to elevate the Georgian situation to that degree.

If Russia decides it can risk another adventure here this summer, there would of course be outrage in the international community, there would be enormous protests, and all that. But Russia must realize in advance that they would pay a higher price than what they had to pay for last August's tragic events in South Ossetia.

RFE/RL: You think that the price was not high enough after the August events.

Corboy: Let's not go into the origin of the August events, because I see it as a train crash happening in slow motion. Everybody knew that Russia was preparing something, and we knew that there were difficulties for the Georgian villagers, and so forth. Remember that it was part of the Russian strategy, going right back to 2006, to proceed toward this, and this was the opportunity that they got.

It will now take very little for Russia to find a similar pretext, with their troops on the border, with minor incidents [with Georgians soldiers] happening virtually every day. It's very easy now that the incidents will not be with the Abkhaz or the South Ossetians -- they will be with Russian troops, and it's very easy for that to escalate. Ideally, they would like to be able to blame Georgia for bringing them into another conflict.
A hallmark of both American and European policy since the end of the Soviet Union has been to protect and give security to the independent countries that are now in existence.


So we are raising the alarm to remind policymakers, particularly in Washington, that this is a very important part of the reset button. A hallmark of both American and European policy since the end of the Soviet Union has been to protect and give security to the independent countries that are now in existence. We're committed to keeping them independent, and to protecting their independence. If possible, we must find a way to give Georgia more security.

'Georgian' Politics

RFE/RL: Why do you think the Russian threat is not appreciated in Georgia? Do you believe it's tied to the current standoff between the government and the opposition?

Corboy: I find it very sad, but I think people are in denial that this danger exist. If we are correct about our assessment of the danger in Georgia -- and a lot of people agree with the assessment -- then there should be no space for the domestic turmoil here. We should be having national solutions, and the people should be thinking first of the country, not their party, or their particular ambitions.

Because when we look at the alternatives to the present regime -- whatever you say about it -- what is the alternative? This is not realistic politics, to say that you will not talk to the elected president of the country until he resigns, and not telling the people what government you would put in place. That is not democratic politics.

What worries us all is the tradition that Georgia has, that for the first two presidents they have had since independence, they have changed them through the streets. And we hope that that will not try to happen again.

RFE/RL: What potential do you see for political change in Georgia?

Corboy:  The most important thing is to initiate, as rapidly as possible, the reforms that everybody accepts have to be carried out. Then there should be parliamentary elections, and then maybe you could persuade the president in two years' time to hold a referendum on the question of the presidency. But you must return to constitutional government. And the most important part of that constitutional government, to my mind, are the reforms.

It has to begin with a dialogue, but it has to move very quickly from a dialogue to action.

If everybody would appreciate the danger the country is really in...those of us in the commentariat out there aren't making this up. The future of the Georgian state is in grave danger. And they have to wake up to that fact and, appropriately, think of the country.

That's my feeling. I'm sorry, I feel strongly about it. But I think the theater in the streets is not helping the international community to focus on Georgia as I think it must.
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by: Koba from: Washington, DC
May 18, 2009 15:00
A good analysis that lacks resolution. I can only hope that Obama shows some military teeth if and when the Kremlin decides to move forward with a military plan to bring down Georgian government. <br /><br />Corboy: &quot;This is obviously not as important as issues like Pakistan and Afghanistan, getting nuclear disarmament talks going, Iran, the Middle East, Korea. All these things are very important. But we should not allow Russia to trade these things against regaining control over its own back garden here. And that is why we're sounding the alarm.&quot; <br /><br />Grim prospects of Russia occupying Georgia and neutralizing one of the most committed US ally IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS Afghanistan, Iran, or Korea. <br />And Georgia IS NOT Russia's 'own back garden.' <br />

by: Vyacheslav from: Zurich, CH
May 18, 2009 17:50
Well, there really isn't anything the Obama administration can do if Russia carries out another peacekeeping operation in Georgia this year. What was NATO able to do last year? Tell Russia ''Withdrawal from Georgia, or else... we will tell you to withdrawal again with a louder voice?''<br /><br />Russia knows fully well that NATO countries in Europe will never imagine risking a military confrontation with Russia, lest their oil &amp; gas supplies get cut. Additionally, if the US decides to intervene militarily to protect Georgia, Russia will ensure that Turkey closes the Bosphorus and that Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine all close their air space to the US military (or else, the above named countries better start burning wood for their energy needs).

by: Dave from: Kirkland, WA
May 18, 2009 18:17
Most Americans don't know that when the USSR broke apart in the early 90's, Both S. Ossetia and Abkhazia had independently ruled their areas for more than a hundred years and fought to be independent. At that time, peacekeepers were placed in those areas to maintain that autonomy. When Russia learned last year that Georgia attacked and killed Russian peacekeepers in S. Ossetia, they stepped in to reverse that attack and provide the independence which Abkhazia and S. Ossetia should have been given nearly 20 years ago when those CIS countries regained their independence.

by: Alex from: London
May 18, 2009 18:47
The trouble with this analysis is that I fail to see how this is worthwhile for Russia. Moscow can, and does, live with the BTC and BTE. It can kill off Nabucco pretty easily without going to war. <br /><br />And although it may feel pretty confident, Russia knows that war with Georgia would ruin its relationship with the West, utterly. They're unsure of the Obama administration but not enough to provoke a major confrontation. And how would Russian control work in a practical sense? Occupying Georgia permanently? I fail to see that Russia could or would do that.<br /><br />Clearly Russia loathes Saakashvili and wants him gone. But starting a major international crisis over him is simply not worth it. Far better, and far easier, to just threaten war, and provoke enough internal instability in Georgia to remove him.

by: Courtney from: San Francisco
May 18, 2009 19:21
I wonder if these gents are on Georgia's payroll. Georgia spends more money on western PR then on its own people.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
May 18, 2009 21:00
Pretty clear how Mr. Corby would answer the question: &quot;Is Russia a friend or foe?&quot; Alas, I suspect that it is more complicated than this. Though much indeed is rhetoric, Putin and crew are doing what is necessary to &quot;protect the Russian way of life,&quot; much of which is based on controlling the flow of hydrocarbons out of the Caspian and Central Asian region. As U.S. forces are stretched rather thin at the moment (my eldest son is redeploying to Afghanistan this summer), perhaps our NATO allies ought to take the lead on drawing and enforcing this red line.

by: Dimitri from: Pennsylvania
May 18, 2009 21:50
I am very much of the same opinion. I agree with the analysis, and conclusions this article has made. Russia is very much in the wrong, and the International community must do everything to protect a minor country like Georgia against Russia's negative influence in the region. Russia thinks it can't have a prospering stable Georgia under it's control, so it's more than happy to dominate a Georgia that's in poverty and anarchy. Stop Russia!

by: John from: Los Angeles
May 18, 2009 23:29
How convenient and mind-numbingly condescending that Corboy pre-emptively answers: &quot;Let's not go into the origins of the August event..&quot; Of course not, for if we did such an irresponsible thing as analyze who began the war, we would find that the dreaded Russians were defending their Ossetian brothers. How can one intelligently discuss a cathartic event if one simply refuses to aknowledge it's cause? Not surprising though, as this selective perception comes from a slew of Saakishvilli apologists. As for the &quot;red line&quot; - why should one drop of American blood be wasted on the behaviour of a fringe despot? Saakishvilli's motivations are at odds with peace. He benefits from further conflict. Why should we be pawns in his game? The Russians have much more at stake in the Caucasus then we do.<br />

by: ZviadKavteli from: Ann Arbor, MI, USA
May 19, 2009 03:23
Mr. Corboy's analysis is very good and objective. I cannot agree more. However, there are two important issues he is wrong about. <br /><br />This is not only about Georgian independence, this is about democracy, independence, and fates of 11 former Soviet countries. This is about freedom and fates of more than 100 million people. This is signivicantly more important than Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Korea.<br /><br />Calling it Russia's own back garden is disrespectful to Georgia and its independence. Georgia is the country of ancient civilization and history, unique language and culture. Georgia is a beautiful garden that Russia has occupied and robbed for decades. However, Georgia has never been and will never be somebody's back, front, or side garden.

by: Aaron from: New York
May 19, 2009 06:02
I believe that this analysis is biased, perhaps paid by Saakashvili to silence the opposition movement, the authors highlight an imminent threat thus hinting that internal politics of Georgia should align with the ruling government. USA does not need another war. &quot;A hallmark of both American and European policy since the end of the Soviet Union has been to protect and give security to the independent countries that are now in existence.&quot; To believe this someone has to have their head in sand or in an elementary school, with this statement you the authors lost all credibility in your argument.
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