Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Oct 3 13:58:26 UTC 2006

Stephen Blank 9/26/06

A EurasiaNet Commentary

Georgia and Russia appear on a collision course over the separatist
regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi stands to lose more than it
could ever gain by adhering to confrontational policies. Speaking at the
United Nations General Assembly on September 22, Georgian President
Mikheil Saakashvili spoke ominously about the future. He said that a
"fresh roadmap" for settling the so-called frozen conflicts was needed one
that called for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers with an
international force. Russia has made it clear that such a change is
unacceptable. But Saakashvili said in his UN speech; "if we fail to unite
in support of new mechanisms to advance peace we give a green light to
those who seek otherwise and we risk plunging the region into darkness and

Several preconditions for conflict are already evident in the region. For
example, both Moscow and Tbilisi regularly accuse each other of
war-mongering. Georgian officials believe that Moscows support for
separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is part of a Russian plan aimed
at curtailing Georgian sovereignty. Conversely, Moscow is wary about
Tbilisis recent move to solidify its hold over the Kodori Gorge. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many political analysts
wonder if Russia is seeking a pretext to whip up a conflict. They cite
Moscows tacit support for the independence referendum in the
Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, as well as an upcoming plebiscite in
South Ossetia, as proof of malevolent intentions. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, Russian officials from President
Vladimir Putin on down have tried to establish Kosovo as a precedent that
would enable the international communitys endorsement of break-away
efforts by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Trans-Dniester region.

Beyond mutual recrimination, both sides have incessantly organized
provocations against the other. In recent months, there have been numerous
instances of military maneuvering and skirmishes in South Ossetia. Georgia
has angered Moscow by detaining peacekeepers for alleged visa violations.
Moscow, meanwhile, has outraged Tbilisi with the imposition of economic
sanctions, in particular a ban on wine imports. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive]. Either South Ossetian forces or Russian forces
escalated tension in early September by shooting at a Georgian helicopter
carrying Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili.

Each side's public and private statements reek with contempt for the other
side. Such sentiments, it must be stressed, can cloud rational
decision-making. Because the Georgian issue is now a personal one for
Russia and vice versa, and given the intense dislike of Russian and
Georgian leaders have for each other, there are good reasons to worry that
one or the other side could easily make a misstep and ignite an armed
conflict. Overconfidence is particularly apparent on the Georgian side.
Georgia, with assistance from the United States and NATO, has
significantly improved the professionalism of its armed forces. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But the Georgian military
continues to suffer from serious defects, and there are not many reasons
to believe that it could currently stand up well to the rigors of war.
Some Georgians have needlessly riled Russia by questioning Moscows will to
defend its interests. Such behavior serves to reinforce the Russian view
of Georgia as being home to lazy and empty braggarts.

Any Georgian move to reconquer either Abkhazia or South Ossetia would
stand to backfire on Tbilisi. An unsuccessful military campaign not only
would crush any hopes of a political deal that could bring Abkhazia and
South Ossetia back into Georgias fold, it would likely deal a crippling
blow to Tbilisis efforts to join NATO, and could additionally bring about
the collapse of President Mikheil Saakashvilis administration. Georgia
should not be lulled into a false sense of security by counting on
well-meaning, but uninformed statements by American commentators,
legislators, or self-appointed friends of Georgia. In the event of a war,
Russia would probably disregard American pleas for restraint vis--vis
Georgia, and would aim to achieve a decisive victory, not only to crush
the Saakashvili administration, but also to try to humiliate Washington.
Indeed, the very idea that Washington would risk conflict with Moscow over
South Ossetia is a delusional. Georgians also shouldnt be fooled by the
relatively easy success of the Kodori Gorge operation in the summer of
2006 against a rebel paramilitary group. [For background see the Eurasia
Insight archive]. Georgian troops would likely encounter far better armed
and organized forces in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

The late Alexander Orlov, who defected from the Soviet Secret Police to
the United States and later wrote a Handbook on Intelligence and Guerrilla
Warfare, observed that the first rule is not to respond to provocation. It
is obvious that Russian policy for a long time has sought to provoke
Georgia, either to punish it or to goad it into taking an ill-considered
step, such as attacking Russian forces, or the Abkhazians or South
Ossetians directly. The stronger Georgia becomes internally through reform
and legitimacy, the more it has to offer its former provinces, and the
less able Russia would be to threaten it. Here the lesson of the Baltic
states is instructive.  Some nationalists in the Baltic states wanted to
redraw boundaries, or demanded reparations from Russia. In the end,
however, reason prevailed, and the Baltic states refrained from taking
confrontational action. Today, of course, the Baltic states are members of
NATO and the EU and enjoy grater security and prosperity than ever before.

Editor's Note: Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College.
The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of
the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.


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