A well-orchestrated surge of nationalistic pride seems to be driving Russia into a major confrontation with the West over the invasion of Georgia. The Russian media is full of brutal abuse, aimed at opponents of the invasion. State-sponsored propaganda has implied that the West is not only supporting Georgia against Russia, but has sent mercenaries to the fight. It was reported that on August 10 in South Ossetia a “black U.S. citizen” was captured together with a group of Georgian special forces planning subversion. It was reported that a captured pilot of a Georgian Su-25 attack plane shot down over South Ossetia “could not speak Russian or Georgian” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, August 15). These reports have not been substantiated.
In a display of Cold War rhetoric, the Kremlin-controlled daily Izvestia has called the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a “war hawk” and “a single old skinny lady that likes to display her underwear during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.” The daily called Rice “insane” and described her statements criticizing Russian actions as “colloquial diarrhea” (Izvestia, August 20). Lavrov has in turn publicly used heavy language, accusing NATO of bias and of trying to save the “criminal regime” in Tbilisi as a suspension of military cooperation was announced by both Moscow and the Alliance (www.mid.ru, August 19).
Comments by leading Russian political and business leaders explain to the public that the West needs our oil and gas, that Russia may ignore a suspension of WTO entry or the exclusion from the G8 club of leading industrial democracies. However, presidential foreign policy aid Sergei Prikhodko has praised “the constructive dialogue” with the French President Nicolas Sarkozy on finding a solution to the crisis over South Ossetia (Izvestia, August 20; Newsru.com, August 24).
The explicit difference in the Kremlin’s approach to critics lead by the U.S. and our traditional friends – France, Germany and Italy – may be an attempt to split the West and weaken any possible future punishment for invading Georgia. At the same time presidential adviser Gleb Pavlovsky has said in a radio interview that there is a “party of war” inside the Kremlin – a group of high officials that are pressing for a direct attack on Tbilisi to overthrow the Georgian government. Pavlovsky states the alleged “party of war” wants to use the conflict with Georgia to undermine President Dmitry Medvedev’s plans of modernize Russia, that “they say we must go further than Tbilisi,” apparently indicating possible plans of further military action to subdue other pro-Western Russian neighboring nations like Ukraine. Pavlovsky stated that by signing a ceasefire agreement brokered by Sarkozy, Medvedev has defeated the “party of war” (Ekho Moskvy, August 12).
There may indeed be intense arguments within the ruling top bureaucracy in Moscow on what to do next: To march our tanks on to Tbilisi, or use more subtle means. On August 22, the Kremlin announced “all Russian troops withdrawn from Georgia” (Interfax, August 22). Some Russian troops have apparently indeed been moved back to Russian territory, but the bulk has remained in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while others are manning outposts and roadblocks deep inside Georgian territory within a self-proclaimed “security buffer zone.” The Russian Defense Ministry has in fact proclaimed its right to deploy Russian troops in any part of Georgia “if the situation requires action” (RIA-Novosti, August 23).
It is clear that Moscow and the West interpret Sarkozy’s ceasefire deal differently. The parties of presumed “doves” and “hawks” may differ on means, but their end goal seems to be the same: the destruction of pro-Western Georgia and inclusion of what is left within Moscow’s sphere of influence. As Russian troops continue the occupation, the Kremlin has announced it will not discuss the possible replacement of Russian troops by international observers or peacekeepers (Interfax, August 23).
On Monday, the Russian parliament is expected to call for the recognition of the sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the creation of a special tribunal to punish Georgian officials, including President Mikhail Saakashvili, whom Moscow has already declared to be a war criminal (RIA-Novosti, August 25). Recognition of Abkhaz and Ossetian sovereignty could help legalize Russian permanent military presence in Georgia.
A Moscow defense weekly connected to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s former KGB associates and published by the state corporation Rostekhnologiy has admitted that the invasion of Georgia was prepared well in advance. The troops that crossed the Georgian border on August 8 were concentrated in attack positions in full readiness for immediate action under the cover of military exercises Kavkaz-2008 that ended on August 2. Massive troop reinforcements were also ready to follow up the initial attack (VPK, August 20).
Russia invaded Georgia with no intention to retreat and our leaders seem to be ready to pay the price. Last week Russian foreign currency reserves decreased by $16.4 billion as some $20 billion foreign investment has fled because of the war. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin expressed optimism at a Cabinet meeting that the worst is over, but Putin replied by ordering, “To be prepared for further negative developments” (Kommersant, August 22). Surely Putin knows better.