Testing the West’s collective credibility, Russia is again fabricating pretexts for possible military action on Georgian territory, ostensibly to go after “Chechen and international terrorists” in the Pankisi Gorge. This latest cycle of threats is more dangerous than previous ones because Moscow has just dictated a quick phase-out of the OSCE’s Border Monitoring Operation. The BMO had until now implicitly or explicitly disproved Moscow ‘s allegations about “terrorists” on Georgian territory, watched the border with remarkable effectiveness, and functioned in practice as a political deterrent to possible Russian military action inside Georgia under pretense of “anti-terrorism.”
On January 17, Russia ‘s embassy in Tbilisi issued a communique charging,”The terrorist threat, originating from Georgia ‘s territory, persists.” Pointedly “drawing the attention of Georgia’s leadership” to recent Russian accusations of the same sort, the communique dismissed Georgia’s repeated assurances that the Pankisi Gorge is clean, and construed such assurances as “attempts to conceal the problem.” Scoffing at the results of recent international inspection visits — including some by Russians — that had “allegedly confirmed the absence of terrorist groups in Pankisi,” the Russian communique claimed (implying Georgian collusion) that the “terrorists” had received advance information of such visits, dispersed, and then returned.
The statement caps a series of Russian warnings to Georgia in recent weeks, insinuating that Georgia is unable or unwilling to face up to the “terrorist” problem, and suggesting that Russian and Georgian border and security services take common action. This line seems to presage that Moscow ‘s next step might be to demand some kind of “joint operation” that would bring Russian personnel to Georgian territory along the border and even perhaps into Pankisi.
These warnings seemingly contradict Moscow ‘s own justifications for terminating the BMO within the OSCE. There, Russia recently argued that the situation on the border had improved, Russian and Georgian border troops and security services were cooperating well, and therefore the BMO had become unnecessary and no longer worth the financial costs. Terminating the BMO on one kind of rationale and then asserting a right of unilateral action on a quite opposite rationale are twin facets of the same policy.
Indeed, the January 17 communique instructed Georgia “not to pin its hopes on international monitoring,” but rather to agree on “genuine anti-terrorist measures.” If Georgia’s Western partners do not respond adequately at this stage — urgently deploying a substitute BMO under European Union aegis, as well as taking necessary diplomatic steps — Moscow may next define “genuine anti-terrorist measures” as involving Russian military strikes or security operations on Georgian territory. Moscow has periodically raised this prospect, most recently in December through Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and the North Caucasus military command.
Within hours of the Russian communique’s release, Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Salome Zourabichvili commented that it only proves the necessity of continuing the BMO or urgently replacing it with a similar operation. She appealed to the EU to contribute financial and technical assistance. A statement by the Ministry pointed out that Moscow consistently ignores Georgian requests to explain and substantiate the accusations. It noted, ” Russia is seeking excuses for delivering so-called preventive strikes on Georgia . The accusations and threats to use force have intensified after the suspension of the OSCE’s border-monitoring mandate . . . on the Chechen, Ingush, and Dagestani sections. That international monitoring is vital. Georgia calls on the friendly states to meet its request and continue that monitoring.”
In a concurrent move, Moscow on January 16 assigned FSB Colonel Anatoly Yarovoy — hitherto security chief in Mordvinia (central Russia ) — to the post of chief of South Ossetia ‘s “state security committee.” South Ossetia ‘s “defense minister” is also a Russian Colonel, Anatoly Barankevich (apparently promoted to General in Tskhinvali). “This can no longer be described as interference. If this is not annexation, then one doesn’t know what annexation is,” Zourabichvili commented. Simultaneously, Moscow in effect appointed the ruling team in Abkhazia.
Russia physically controls the Georgian side of the internationally recognized Georgia-Russia border in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sections. It now apparently seeks to achieve control of the Chechen, Ingush, and Dagestani sections on the Georgian side of the border. If successful, such a move would advance the process of erasing borders, tearing off chunks of countries, and generally destroying the international legal order in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region.
Politically, Moscow’s latest moves against Georgia — and against the OSCE on Georgia and related issues — seek to distract attention from the issues of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russian troops and bases inside Georgia, keeping all those issues frozen, and forcing Tbilisi, Washington, Brussels, and other players to focus on defusing an artificial crisis over Pankisi and “terrorists.” The Kremlin apparently also seeks to distort the agenda of the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit in that same way, and even to test the Bush Administration by raising the stakes over Georgia in the run-up to the summit.
(Interfax, Kavkasia-Press, Rustavi-2 Television, January 17).