July 02, 2009
article where it was originally published
With President Barack Obama's trip to Moscow on
Monday, you might expect Russia to avoid stirring up any trouble. Yet the
Russian media are now abuzz with speculation about a new war in Georgia,
and some Western analysts are voicing similar concerns. The idea seems
insane. Nonetheless, the risk is real.
One danger sign is persistent talk of so-called
Georgian aggression against the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, which Russia
recognized as independent states after the war last August. "Georgia is rattling its weapons . . . and has
not given up on attempts to solve its territorial problems by any
means," Gen. Nikolai Makarov, who commanded Russian troops in Georgia
in 2008, told the Novosti news agency on June 17. Similar warnings have been
aired repeatedly by the state-controlled media.
Independent Russian commentators, such as
columnist Andrei Piontkovsky, note that this has the feel of a propaganda
campaign to prepare the public for a second war. Most recently, Moscow has trotted out a
Georgian defector, Lt. Alik D. Bzhania, who claims that Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili "intends to restart the war."
is the one currently engaged in large-scale military exercises in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and adjacent regions. Russia has also kicked out
international observers from the area. On June 15, Moscow
vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution renewing the mandate of U.N.
monitors in Abkhazia because it mentioned an earlier resolution affirming Georgia's
territorial integrity. Negotiations to extend the mission of monitors for the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
have broken down thanks to Russian obstruction. Now, 225 European Union
monitors are the only international presence on the disputed borders.
The expulsion of neutral observers seems odd if
is worried about Georgian aggression. But it makes sense if Russia is planning an attack.
What would the Kremlin gain? A crushing victory
in Georgia would depose
the hated Mr. Saakashvili, give Russia
control of vital transit routes for additional energy resources that could
weaken its hold on the European oil and gas markets, humiliate the U.S.,
and distract Russians from their economic woes. Mr. Piontkovsky also believes
the war drive comes from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is
anxious to reassert himself as supreme leader.
Still, the costs would be tremendous. Last year
the Kremlin repaired some of the damage to its relations with Europe and the U.S. by portraying the invasion of Georgia
as a response to a unique crisis, not part of an imperial strategy. Another
war would cripple Russia's
quest for respectability in the civilized world, including its vanity project
of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
And after the patriotic fervor wears off,
domestic discontent would likely follow. Moreover, Russia would almost certainly
find itself mired in a long guerilla war. This would further destabilize a
region where Russia's own
provinces, Ingushetia and Dagestan, are
plagued by violent turmoil.
Given all this, a war seems unlikely. What's
more probable is that Russia
will seek to destabilize Georgia
without military action. This saber-rattling may be meant to boost Georgian
opposition to Mr. Saakashvili.
actions are not always rational. If the pro-war faction believes that the
Western response to an assault on Georgia would be weak and
half-hearted, it could be emboldened. In a June 25 column on the EJ.ru Web
site, Russian journalist Yulia Latynina writes that the probability of the
war "depends solely on the Kremlin's capacity to convince itself that it
can convince the world that the war is its enemies' fault."
That is why it's essential for the United States and the EU to respond now -- by
increasing their non-military presence in Georgia,
expressing a strong commitment to Georgian sovereignty, and reminding Russia
of the consequences of aggression. Such a statement from President Obama in Moscow would go a long
way toward preventing the possibility of another tragedy.
Ms. Young is a columnist for
RealClearPolitics.com and the author of "Growing Up in Moscow" (Ticknor & Fields, 1989).
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A13