Struggling to explain the November 27-28 Russian air strikes on Georgia, President Vladimir Putin’s Defense Ministry and the Kremlin’s public relations operation are giving each other the lie.
On one side, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov not only denies that Russian aviation bombed Georgian territory, but maintains that “international terrorists” within Georgia caused the explosions. Citing as usual Russian “intelligence information,” Ivanov claims that “Chechen and Arab fighters” in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge fought each other over the proceeds from drug sales, and blew up an ammunition dump in the process. Those sounds were “misinterpreted” as Russian bomb explosions, Sergei Ivanov said. He went on to claim that Russian planes would in any case lack the capability to operate in the darkness in a mountainous area.
The defense minister made these assertions live on two Russian television channels. One of the Russian interviewers instantly interceded that the “defense minister is apparently mistaken,” inasmuch as Russian fighter-bombers and assault helicopters–a mix of which bombed Georgia–are indeed equipped for night-time and all-weather operations. The interviewer, moreover, pointed out that the preceding day’s U.S. State Department statement, supporting Georgia, had been based on data from U.S. intelligence satellites, which recorded the Russian air strikes on Georgia.
Sergei Ivanov is contradicting not only the United States but also the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE observer mission, deployed on the Chechen sector of the Georgia-Russia border in Georgian territory, has confirmed that warplanes coming from Russia staged incursions into Georgia in that sector as well, bombing the environs of Omalo and nearby villages. These raids were simultaneous with the raids on Pankisi which is situated 50 kilometers inside Georgia. Furthermore, it was confirmed yesterday that warplanes from Russia overflew Svaneti in northwestern Georgia, within the same time frame as the raids in Pankisi and the Omalo area which are situated in the northeast.
For his part, Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov deferred to the military on this foreign policy problem. Opening the session of foreign affairs ministers of CIS member countries yesterday, Igor Ivanov stated that he has “nothing to add to the available statements of Russia’s Defense Ministry. Any further comment would be unnecessary.” Not only Sergei Ivanov, but also the General Staff and the Air Force Command in Moscow, as well as the military command in the North Caucasus have officially denied that any raids took place.
By contrast, the Kremlin’s website Strana.ru, managed by President Vladimir Putin’s chief political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, has fully admitted to the Russian air strikes, describing them as justified but ill-timed and lacking political preparation. Strana.ru took this position yesterday in an article by Pavlovsky’s deputy–hitherto director of the Institute for Political Research–Sergei Markov, who is currently responsible for articulating Kremlin policy toward the “near abroad.” Markov wrote: “Russian generals have every reason to hate Eduard Shevardnadze. He is largely responsible for the way in which Soviet leaders withdrew their troops from Eastern Europe. He is personally responsible for the unbearable conditions following the withdrawal.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski is almost equally blameworthy in the Kremlin’s view: “In this case, Russian generals behaved as if spurred to action by a plan that Shevardnadze and Brzezinski drew up.”–presumably, as the article insinuates, during Shevardnadze’s Washington visit last month. “The provocation [to Russia] in Abkhazia and in Pankisi should be viewed precisely in that context.” The implication is that the Russian generals fell for it.
It is convenient to blame Shevardnadze and the “loss” of Eastern Europe, instead of blaming Russia’s own economic backwardness for the impoverishment of its military. It is even more convenient to equate Shevardnadze with Georgia and bully that country. Markov, however, pointed to the international constraints under which Russia must operate: “Russian generals have no right to take actions that might have far-reaching ramifications for Russia’s international standing. [While] American military actions in Afghanistan have strong international political support, the Pankisi incident was a hush-hush, stealthy operation. Such strikes create colossal political problems for Russia’s leaders…Those ignorant of political considerations have no right to order the planes into action. Russia’s leaders need to conduct an investigation and remove those responsible for this grave political blunder from their posts. This will shore up Russia’s international position, and lead to the isolation of Georgia’s leaders, who are supporting international terrorism.”
Yet while taking issue so sharply with a few individual generals–and, implicitly, with Defense Minister Ivanov–this Kremlin mouthpiece agrees with them on the fundamental point, which is building the case for military intervention in Georgia: “There is no doubt that Georgia’s government shelters terrorists and helps them by giving them logistical support. Properly speaking, a military operation in Georgia to root out the terrorist bases would be acceptable. But it should be an overt operation, with the full political backing of Russia’s leadership.”
Building that case has in fact been the focus of Russian policy, and a project of President Vladimir Putin for these past two years (Russian Television “Vesti” program, NTV, Interfax, Strana.ru, Tbilisi Radio, Prime-News, November 29; see the Monitor, September 21, 25, October 3, 12, 23-25, 30-31, November 29; Fortnight in Review, October 26, November 9).
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