A new escalation in the long-running conflict between Russia and Georgia happened almost by chance last week (starting on June 20), but it answered the anxious desire in the Kremlin to move Russia proactively from the path of gradual decline. Russian President Vladimir Putin likely suspects that the real economic situation in his country is worse than the officially registered sluggish growth and that the erosion of his popularity goes deeper than the slight decline reported by semi-official pollsters (Carnegie.ru, June 20). During his annual televised question-and-answer show, which also aired on June 20, Putin tried to reassure the population that their social needs were being prioritized. And yet, Russians have few reasons to be satisfied with his performance, and viewership numbers of this tired show fell to a new low (Kommersant, June 21). The contraction in personal incomes continues despite his assertions to the contrary (Vedomosti, June 24). Moreover, stagnation is no longer comfortable for Russia’s predatory elites, because it generates social discontent rather than apathy, and there is no way to quell such feelings among the populace by continuing to distribute only symbolic gifts (Rosbalt, June 21).
The sudden quarrel with Georgia thus provided the policy-manipulators in the Kremlin with a perfect opportunity to produce a distraction from these unhappy domestic developments. Last Friday, angry demonstrators coalesced in downtown Tbilisi to register their growing opposition to ineffectual government policies as well as, though the immediate trigger was the ruling Georgian Dream party’s ill-conceived invitation of a Russian politician to partake in a conference staged in the Georgian parliament (see EDM, Novaya Gazeta, June 24). Putin responded with a decree banning Russian air flights to Georgia and ordering the evacuation of all Russian tourists, which resembled the economic blackmail preceding the August 2008 war (New Times, June 23). Moreover, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine went into high gear, denigrating Georgia, which is presently seen as an “unfriendly” state by only 11 percent of Russians, compared with 62 percent in 2009 (Levada.ru, June 14). One inevitable result of this pressure is the breakdown of the Kremlin’s tacit approval of Georgian politics being controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, an oligarch (who made his fortune in Russia) with little interest in economic or political reforms (Carnegie.ru, June 23).
The deliberately overblown reaction to the internal crisis in Georgia, which poses no threat to the safety of Russian tourists, is a means for the Kremlin to reassert its eroding dominance in the post-Soviet neighborhood. The resolution of the recent crisis in Moldova, where Russia played a supporting role to the efforts by the European Union and the United States, was not quite helpful in this regard (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 24). The determined stance in Georgia may also help Putin feel more confident at the forthcoming G20 summit in Osaka, Japan—particularly since the intrigue around a possible compromise in the long-deadlocked bilateral dispute over the southern Kurile Islands has thus far yielded no fruit (Rosbalt, June 24). The main issue of focus at the mostly ceremonial summit will revolve around whether China and the US can finally reach a trade deal. Russia has zero influence in this matter and will hardly gain any profile by sitting in a trilateral meeting with India and China (Kommersant, June 25).
What Putin longs for in Osaka above everything else is a conversation with US President Donald Trump. This face-to-face is now confirmed, but apparently no agenda has yet been prepared (RBC, June 25). Putin will likely most wish to discuss arms control. Therefore, he continues to publicly emphasize Russia’s advantages (more imaginary than real) in developing hypersonic weapons systems, hoping to thus stimulate US interest in new talks (Open Media, June 24). Trump aims at engaging China in some new arms-control frameworks, but this proposition remains rather far-fetched (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 16). Putin might hope to turn Georgia into an agenda item in the barely structured conversation, but his counterpart is preoccupied with a separate problem that has acquired alarming proportions and extreme intensity: Iran.
Responding to dangerous provocations in the Gulf region, Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran, which Russia strongly disapproves (RIA Novosti, June 25). Seeking to persuade Moscow to alter its stance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiated a meeting in Jerusalem in a rather unusual trilateral format: his national security advisor, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and US National Security Advisor John Bolton explored common ground with Putin’s trusted lieutenant Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council (Kommersant, June 25). Bolton’s plan is to build a solid international coalition against Iran, but Russia cannot possibly be a part of it or even to remain neutral in the looming conflict (Gazeta.ru, June 24). Russian intervention in Syria can only be sustained in close combat cooperation with various Iran-trained forces and pro-Iranian militias; and the Bashar al-Assad regime is far more dependent upon ties with Iran than on support from Russia (Russiancouncil.ru, June 21). Consequently, Moscow is trapped in an unwinnable position in a conflict that has too many manipulators and a great variety of irrational choices. Russia’s exposure to direct military threats cannot be reduced by diplomatic horse-trading (Fontanka, June 24).
The Georgian crisis might appear easy in comparison, and Moscow may even assume that the concentration of international anxieties regarding the Gulf grants Russia an opportunity to manage Caucasus matters as it sees fit. The temptation to replay the sequence of economic attacks and propaganda assaults on Georgia in the mid-2000s is reinforced by reflections in the Kremlin on the ease of mobilizing public support for those dirty tricks (Moscow Echo, June 25). The announcement of a check of combat readiness in the Central Military District (i.e., a large-scale snap exercise) proves that threats of projecting crude power remain an indispensable instrument in the Kremlin’s conflict-management style (TASS, June 24).
It is entirely possible that Putin will return from Osaka disappointed and irritated. And another local protest against a particular misuse of bureaucratic power could then trigger a bad overreaction. His repressive apparatus is vast but so thoroughly corrupt that a forceful execution of an abrupt executive order could turn ugly and counterproductive. The need to redirect rising public discontent would then become urgent, and Georgia might appear to be a perfect target for a swift demonstration of Russia’s military might. International outcry will hardly dissuade the Kremlin from scoring an easy victory; but domestic enthusiasm for yet more aggression is by no means guaranteed. The nation could refuse to step twice in the same stream of jingoism—and instead of slow stagnation, Russia will experience a spasm of upheaval.