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Georgia: The Threat Of Overheating

Georgian troops on parade (file photo) (InterPressNews) PRAGUE, October 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Some commentators see the latest confrontation between Georgia and Russia as another test of wills between Russia and the United States for influence in what Moscow considers its backyard. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten asks Anatol Lieven, a well-known journalist, author and historian of the region currently with the New America Foundation in Washington, for his take on a crisis that has broad regional implications.

RFE/RL: Many Russian analysts portray Mikheil Saakashvili as a U.S. puppet. They note that he has been receiving U.S. military equipment as well as encouragement to take his country out of Russia's sphere of influence. Their conclusion is that Saakashvili wouldn't have started this very public row with Russia without coordinating with Washington. What's your sense? Who is calling the shots? Is Saakashvili being used as a proxy by Washington, or did he initiate this latest skirmish with Moscow?

Anatol Lieven: I think Saakashvili almost certainly did this on his own. I find it very hard to believe that the Bush administration would have encouraged him to do this. So from that point of view the Russians are simply engaging in conspiracy-minded paranoia, as unfortunately they very often do. There is, however, a wider issue, which is the fact that America is [indeed] arming, equipping, and training the Georgian armed forces. And giving such strong diplomatic and economic support to Georgia naturally encourages the administration in Tbilisi to take a harder line than it would otherwise do vis-a-vis Russia and also, perhaps, vis-a-vis the two unsolved separatist conflicts in Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

RFE/RL: If there were or are Russian agents in Georgia, then the intelligence services in Tbilisi must have been and continue to be well aware of them. Why do you think Saakashvili choose this particular time to have it out with Moscow? At first glance, it would seem to be counterproductive. Russia is finally withdrawing from its military bases. Why provoke the bear at this time?

Lieven: From the point of view of getting the Russian army out of most of Georgia, time is on Tbilisi's side. The army is withdrawing. The Russians have agreed to that. However, I think that from the point of view of getting the Russians out of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgians reckon that in the long run, time is not on their side, that with every year that passes, these areas are getting more and more integrated into Russia. The other thing [could] be -- though I have no evidence of this -- that after [U.S.] Vice President Dick Cheney's speech in Vilnius and other speeches by [U.S.] Senator Richard Lugar and others, the Georgians may have assumed that because U.S.-Russian relations are particularly bad, this is the moment to turn up the heat on Russia, in the expectation that America will in fact back them.

Is Georgia Overreaching?

RFE/RL: What does Russia want from Georgia and why is it so anxious, so easily provoked by Tbilisi?

Lieven: What Russia is most afraid of is that the Georgian administration is planning some sort of military action against South Ossetia, which could actually lead to a war between Russia and Georgia.

RFE/RL: Has Saakashvili overreached? Does Georgia have a chance of getting into NATO or is Saakashvili -- if he is counting on Western assistance against Russia -- operating on false hopes?

"I don't think that NATO membership will come because I just cannot see the West Europeans, most of them, agreeing to take on a military commitment to a country as unstable and divided as Georgia in the middle of an unsolved ethnic conflict."

Lieven: I don't think that NATO membership will come because I just cannot see the West Europeans, most of them, agreeing to take on a military commitment to a country as unstable and divided as Georgia in the middle of an unsolved ethnic conflict.

RFE/RL: What about the United States? Is it likely to come to Georgia's aid unilaterally? Georgia, after all, occupies a strategic position geographically and for oil transit.

Lieven: [The United States] doesn't want to push it that far with Russia. It doesn't want -- it seems at present, at least -- to push it that far with Iran especially if the North Koreans are about to, God forbid, hold a nuclear test. The Bush administration, quite frankly, has behaved pretty crazily often. But I don't believe that even they are crazy enough to want a massive crisis in the Caucasus, simultaneously with an increasingly lost war in Iraq, growing difficulties in Afghanistan, and now what looks like a major nuclear crisis in the Far East. If North Korea explodes a nuclear bomb, then that is going to obsess American energies for months to come. And Russia plays quite an important part out there. It has a border with North Korea. So I just don't think the Americans will want to push this, at this particular moment.

RFE/RL: Moscow has drawn red lines before. For years, it warned NATO that admitting the Baltic states could lead to retaliation and spoil East-West relations for a long time. That didn't happen. How do we know Russia isn't bluffing this time over U.S. support for Georgia?

Lieven: In the Baltic states, thank heavens, nobody resorted to arms. There was no attempt at secession by any part of the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states, nor at armed rebellion. And Russia itself never seriously threatened military action in the Baltic states. It's quite different in Georgia because you do have two heavily armed separatist regions with Russian troops on their soil and also, as we saw before in the 1990s, with large numbers of Russian citizens in the North Caucasus who are willing to move south to fight, if necessary, for their co-ethnics. So I think the situation is far more volatile and potentially violent in Georgia than it was in the Baltics.

Moscow And Tbilisi

Moscow And Tbilisi

Russian military hardware being withdrawn from a Russian base in Batumi, Georgia, in August 2005 (TASS)

WHAT COMES NEXT? Although Russia is unlikely to push an aggressive military response to the current tensions with Georgia, it has a number of economic, political, and diplomatic options at its disposal. Already on October 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned his inner circle to weigh Moscow's options... (more)


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MORE: Coverage of the situation in Georgian from RFE/RL's Georgian Service and in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.


RFE/RL's English-language coverage of Georgia and Russia.