The ordeal of four Russian military intelligence officers arrested in Georgia on September 27 and charged with espionage (see EDM, October 2) ended when the men were expelled to Moscow on Monday, October 2. Speaking on the condition of confidentiality yesterday in Moscow, a high-ranking U.S. diplomat told Jamestown that Washington had been strongly urging the Georgians to secure the release: “We finally pressed them to do it and now hope that the crisis will subside.”
Announcing the release and expulsion of the Russian intelligence officers, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared, “Russia and Georgia are historical partners” and called for dialogue with Moscow and with separatist governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (RIA-Novosti, October 2). But the release of the alleged Russian spies did not soften the Kremlin’s position.
On October 2 U.S. President George W. Bush phoned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, apparently to encourage moderation from the Russian side. Washington likely promised Saakashvili to raise the issue with Moscow if the Georgian authorities relented and released the officers. However Bush, it seems, was rebuffed. The Kremlin press service released the following statement about the conversation: “The Russian side underlined the unacceptability and danger to peace and stability in the region of any actions of third parties that may be interpreted by the Georgian leadership as reinforcement of their destructive policy” (RIA-Novosti, October 2).
On Monday Moscow announced sanctions against Georgia, including cutting off all air, sea, and land transportation links, postal services, and money transfers. On Tuesday, October 3, after the officers were already back in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that sanctions against Georgia would not be revoked. Lavrov declared that the money sent by the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians living and working in Russia to support relatives back home “is criminal in nature” and used to rearm the Georgian military. Lavrov also called the Georgian government’s procurement of weapons abroad “criminal” and expressed hope that Russian sanctions would help stop this activity. Lavrov accused “third parties” of selling weapons to “the Saakashvili regime” and interfering in Russo-Georgian relations, while Moscow’s objective is to “eliminate this problem” (Itar-Tass, October 3).
Lavrov’s aggressive rhetoric follows Putin’s harsh statement made during a meeting of the Russian Security Council on Sunday (Kremlin.ru, October 1). Putin accused Georgia of “continuing the policies of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, both inside the country and on the international stage.” (Beria, an ethnic Georgian, was the notorious chief of Stalin’s secret police.) Putin inquired: “They feel at ease, safe and secure under the protection of their foreign sponsors, but is this really so? I would like to hear the views of the representatives of the civil ministries and the military specialists.”
The message seems clear: Putin wants regime change in Tbilisi to be achieved with virtually any means. Of course, Russia has been pressuring Georgia for years, trying to subvert it with economic sanctions, political and military pressure, supporting pro-Moscow opposition forces, arming separatist forces, and deploying military intelligence officers.
Putin has accused Georgia’s leadership “of state terrorism with hostage-taking” (RIA-Novosti, October 1). But the main problem, constantly raised by Putin, Lavrov, and other officials, is that of “foreign sponsors” or “third parties” — a clear reference to the West and the United States.
After 9/11 Putin declared himself an ally of the United States and the West in the “War on Terror.” In return, the Kremlin had expected that the post-Soviet space encompassing the Commonwealth of Independent States would be recognized as its undisputed sphere of influence, where Russia could do anything it wishes without any “third party” interfering. The West has never formally or informally recognized such a “sphere” and the Kremlin, together with the Russian military/security/foreign policy elite, has interpreted this as a clear sign of ill intent.
The mirage of a new Russian-led union to replace the old Soviet one has obsessed the Kremlin since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The ruling elite in Moscow today is split between those who want to recreate the Soviet Union per se and “reformers” who want a new, remodeled Soviet Union (or “Imperial Russia”) with a thriving market economy and a newly armed, professional military imposing itself on its neighbors. As Putin told the country in August 2000, after the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, “We will overcome it all and restore it all, the military and the navy and the state” (RTR TV, AP, August 24, 2000).
Today the Kremlin seems to feel itself strong enough, thanks to billions of petro-dollars, to enforce its sovereignty on former Soviet republics. Georgia, a small, impoverished country, riddled with separatist problems, may seem to be a good showcase to install a pro-Moscow regime and at the same time kick out the United States, the West, and NATO.
Moscow’s blockade of Georgia will continue and may get worse. Russian officials have threatened to begin mass repatriation of Georgians living in Russia. Hopes have been expressed that the thousands of refugees ethnically cleansed from Russia will, when arriving in Tbilisi, be “more well-disposed toward Moscow” and will overthrow Saakashvili (Strana.ru, October 3).
If the noose of sanctions and pressure fails to achieve regime change, direct military action is possible. The first sortie could be by proxy, using armed separatists supported by “North Caucasian volunteers.” If the proxy forces fail, the regular Russian military could become involved.