Russia’s economic and psychological warfare against Georgia is intensifying in the wake of, and notwithstanding, the release of four Russian military intelligence officers who had been caught in flagrante in Georgia. Arrested on September 27 and indicted for espionage and subversion, the four officers (a colonel, two lieutenant-colonels, and a major) were handed over to the OSCE in Tbilisi on October 2 for transfer to Russia — as President Mikheil Saakashvili made clear — “in a goodwill gesture toward our democratic friends and allies [who had interceded to defuse tensions]. This is in no way a response to pressure and bullying. We are used to that, are not afraid of that, and are determined to move ahead despite and against that pressure and bullying, and we will” (Georgian TV Channel One, October 2).
The arrest of this group marks the first time that Georgia cracked a network of Russian military intelligence, made the facts public, and initiated legal proceedings. Tbilisi had cautioned Moscow several times recently through direct diplomatic channels as well as through third parties that Tbilisi was prepared to act against Russian intelligence agents operating in Georgia. The arrested group may have been the tip of an iceberg, prompting Moscow to fear additional arrests of its agents in Georgia. Moscow’s extremely disproportionate reaction may well aim in part to head off further such arrests.
Within hours of the group’s release, Russia went ahead and suspended all railway, highway, maritime, and air transport, as well as postal services, between Russia and Georgia. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, this new round of economic sanctions aims at nothing short of reversing Georgia’s policies: “It’s a matter of changing their attitude totally” (New York Times, October 3).
The Kremlin apparently feels that it is about to miss its last opportunity to keep Georgia within its grip. Georgia has confounded Moscow by achieving a solid national consensus for the Western orientation, competent and effective governance, an efficient counter-intelligence service, and double-digit economic growth this year, despite Russia’s embargo on Georgia’s traditional agricultural and wine exports. Georgia’s rapidly growing importance as an energy transit country increases the West’s stake in Georgia’s security and successful development. With this year’s inauguration of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and scheduled inauguration of the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, Georgia is moving decisively out of the orbit of Russian dominance.
Last month, Georgia advanced to the stage of Intensive Dialogue with NATO on membership issues — a status that rewards Georgia’s performance on security sector reforms as well as its participation in NATO-led and U.S.-led operations. The European Union-Georgia Action Plan is due to be signed shortly as part of the EU’s neighborhood policy. Saakashvili reviewed the final text of the plan with top EU officials in Tbilisi on October 2 — the same day that Georgia released the four Russian officers while confidently announcing its intention to continue on its chosen course.
Along with the economic sanctions against Georgia, Moscow has launched a psychological warfare campaign of unprecedented intensity. Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down are accusing Georgia of “state terrorism.” Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has termed Georgia a “gangster state.” Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, at the Council of Europe on October 4, referred to Georgia throughout his speech as “the Saakashvili regime” and openly questioned the legitimacy of Georgia’s 2004 presidential and parliamentary elections (Interfax, October 1-9).
At the strategic level, Russia’s economic sanctions and political intimidation respond to what the Kremlin must regard as the growing probability of losing Georgia permanently. Moscow’s latest measures are designed to halt that process before it reaches the point of no return.
On the tactical level, the Kremlin seeks to retaliate against Georgia’s latest t moves to free itself from various forms of Russian leverage: extricating from Gazprom’s monopoly, calling at the United Nations for urgent international involvement in solving the “frozen” conflicts, rooting out the GRU network, arresting leaders of fifth-column groups, and reestablishing national control over the upper Kodori Gorge.
Furthermore, Moscow’s measures aim to intimidate the Georgian parliament and government into renouncing their intention to declare Russia’s “peacekeeping” operations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia illegitimate and call for deployment of international missions there. The parliamentary resolutions and consequent governmental declarations are expected to be adopted this month.
Moscow has largely exhausted or lost almost all forms of leverage on Georgia. Just in the recent months Russia has embargoed all of Georgia’s main export products, thus slowing down Georgia’s rapid economic growth, but at the same time almost running out of sanctions to impose. The closure of Russia’s market to Georgia is a blessing in disguise, spurring Georgia’s efforts to switch from the low-standard Russian market to more demanding and more lucrative international markets, as did the Baltic states in the 1990s when Russia restricted their access to its market.
Halting the flow of remittances from Russia to Georgia is technically and legally impossible. Expulsion of Georgian workers or traders from Russia is physically impossible, except in a small number of individual cases, the publicity from which is already backfiring on Moscow. Russia temporarily closed the last legitimate border-crossing point (Larsi) for motor traffic between Georgia and Russia, but came up against protests from Armenia, which was also affected by that restriction. Moscow set up a fifth-column operation in Georgia that fell flat for lack of local support. It failed conclusively to take over Georgia’s gas pipelines. And it realized that it had no choice but to give up the Batumi and Akhalkalaki military bases, the withdrawal from which has now reached the point of no return and is proceeding on schedule.
Short of launching military operations or staging attacks by proxies, Moscow can only continue inflicting economic pain on Georgia for some limited period of time, a danger point of which will be reached this coming winter. But the main effect of Russia’s economic sanctions and psychological warfare can already be seen in the acceleration of Georgia’s economic reorientation toward international markets and its overall political and strategic reliance on Western partners and allies. Russia is no longer able to halt Georgia’s independent development.