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There won't be a global war, but there will be a global battle for peace so heated that it won't leave a single stone unturned." I am reminded of this Soviet-era joke in light of the conflict among Georgia, Abkhazia and Russia.
The recent round of tensions began on April 16, when President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to recognize some documents issued by the separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to expand economic cooperation with these unrecognized territories. In response, Tbilisi declared that Moscow was taking steps toward annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and it reinstated flights by reconnaissance drones over Abkhazia. After an aircraft of unknown origin shot down one of these drones, Georgia protested Russia's moves as an act of aggression. For its part, the Kremlin then announced it would increase its peacekeeping force in the conflict zone by one-third, from 2,000 to 3,000 personnel. This was ostensibly done in response to Georgia's supposed bolstering of its military forces in the conflict zone. Georgian and Russian officials no longer mince words: Both sides go to great lengths to offend each other. All of this is bringing both sides to the brink of war.
I am certain, however, that neither side truly wants this conflict to escalate toward a military conflict. In reality, all of their actions and aggressive stances are meant as signals intended for the United States and NATO.
It is clear that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's policies have hit a dead end. He promised Georgians that Abkhazia and South Ossetia would return to Tbilisi's control, but he has no way of making good on it in the foreseeable future. Although Russia's intervention in the region has been a factor, the savage civil war of the 1990s left wounds that will take decades to heal. Given these problems, Saakashvili is looking to join NATO as quickly as possible in the hope that the organization can help restore Georgia's territorial integrity. But NATO's rules prohibit the accession of any country that is embroiled in an internal territorial conflict such as Georgia's. Tbilisi, however, is hoping that NATO will overlook this rule and defend Georgia as an eventual NATO member against Russian aggression. To make the threat from Moscow look menacing, Georgia must constantly provoke Russia.
At the same time, it is obvious that open warfare with Russia would end badly for Georgia. Russia holds absolute military superiority, with 90,000 soldiers and 200 military aircraft in its North Caucasus military district, and they would quickly overwhelm Georgia's 21,000 troops and eight aircraft. Russia has battle-hardened, fully equipped troops, that it can draw on in the event of war. Saakashvili's army doesn't stand a chance of winning a direct conflict.
Moscow appears determined to aggravate the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, taking pains to create the impression that Russia is ready not only to annex these "unrecognized territories," but to do so by force. The Kremlin is enraged that Georgia and Ukraine will eventually be allowed to join NATO, claiming that the West has unilaterally changed the fundamental rules that govern international relations. And Moscow is determined to aggravate the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, sending the message that the rules to its game in the Caucasus can be changed as well.
In reality, however, Moscow is not interested in war any more than Georgia is. If Russia were to defeat Georgia, it would violate one of the unstated principles of its foreign policy. Despite all of its militaristic rhetoric, in all the years of Putin's presidency, the Kremlin never once took an action that would be possible to consider as aggressive. A war with Georgia would mean that Russia, as the Soviet Union before it, represents a danger to the world community. And that would inevitably lead to sanctions and isolation. Russia's elite, whose families and money are located in the West, have no desire to see that happen.
And so we have a paradoxical situation. Nobody wants war, but both sides are doing everything to spark a military conflict. This is not the first time this situation has arisen. Recall how World War I began. States wanted only to protect their national pride and frighten their opponents. But at some point, the tensions escalated sharply and, coupled with mass mobilizations of their armies, the conflict in the Balkans spun out of control with tragic consequences for the entire world. This scenario could be repeated in the Caucasus.
Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.