Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 188

Will Moscow succeed in turning Georgia into the first casualty of Russian antiterrorist “assistance” to the United States? Mysteriously provoked armed clashes have escalated since October 7 in the Kodori Gorge, a no-man’s land separating Georgian-controlled from Abkhaz-controlled territory, near the border with Russia. The fighting pits Abkhaz forces against that elusive force of “Chechen and Georgian guerrillas,” which has, since late August, conducted intermittent raids in this area. Those small-scale, hit-and-run skirmishes have now grown into continuous fighting, with some features of positional warfare.

On October 9, several “unidentified” Sukhoi ground-assault jets flew in from Russian airspace, carried out two bombing raids on a Georgian portion of the Kodori Gorge and disappeared into Russian airspace again. There are signs that the Russian “peacekeeping” units, which arrived recently to relieve other Russian units as part of a regular rotation, may in fact be intendedsimply to augment, not rotate, the Russian force in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone.

According to Russian media reports on October 10, military transport vehicles are crossing the border into Abkhazia from Russia, purportedly delivering massive quantities of “fuel.” The actual content of those deliveries is anyone’s guess, however. Russian military officials, furthermore, are getting themselves quoted by the press “on background” to the effect that Russia might be “forced” to intervene directly in order to “protect” the Gudauta base and nearby Bombori airfield. The Russian government was obligated under international agreements to withdraw its troops from the base and the airfield by July 1, but flouted that obligation. Now, the “need to protect” that unlawful presence might serve to rationalize deploying additional Russian troops.

Adding an international dimension to the current fighting suits its orchestrators. On October 8, a ground-launched projectile downed a clearly marked helicopter of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, killing all nine aboard. These included five UNOMIG officers, an Abkhaz employee of the mission and three Ukrainian crewmen. Russian sources, furthermore, claim that ethnic Armenian villagers in Kodori Gorge have been seized and killed by the “Chechen-Georgian” force. Russia’s UN mission in New York seeks some sort of U.N. condemnation of Georgia as complicit with “international terrorism.” Moscow seems especially keen on introducing the hyphenated oxymoron “Chechen-Georgian” into UN documents. That forms only one aspect of Moscow’s effort to obtain, if not an international mandate, at least international–and, crucially, American–passivity toward a Russian military move against Georgia. Within the same context, the Russian “peacekeeping” commander in Georgia, Lieutenant-General Nikolai Sidorychev, charged in the Defense Ministry’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda that “NATO vessels, masquerading as merchant ships, are engaged in “intelligence-gathering in the Black Sea” off Abkhazia’s coast and also in “frequent incidents of electronic interference with the [Russian] peacekeeping troops’ communications.” (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 9). Such a charge under that ministry’s imprimatur seems designed to inhibit Washington’s reaction to military moves under consideration in Moscow against Georgia.

In Moscow, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov declared: “It is now becoming absolutely clear that either the Georgian leadership is not in control of the situation on its own territory, or [it] is manipulating the terrorists for its own ends. The Abkhaz leadership has declared general mobilization because the Abkhaz have, in fact, been attacked by international terrorists. We still do not see any real readiness on the part of the Georgian leadership to cooperate in the fight against international terrorism.”

In the same vein, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry warned against an imminent “resumption of large-scale armed conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia with the participation of international terrorists. The Georgian side will bear full responsibility for this. The Russian side had categorically warned the Georgian side to take decisive measures for liquidating terrorist groups in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone.” Both this ministry’s and Sergei Ivanov’s statement reaffirmed Russia’s readiness to “provide assistance to Georgia” in crushing “international terrorists” on its territory.

Moscow has in fact offered such assistance for almost two years. As outlined by President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, it would take the form of “special operations” by Russian army troops inside Georgia against purported Chechen and other “terrorists” there. President Eduard Shevardnadze and his government have consistently opposed any such intervention. They, no less than Moscow, realize that such an operation would extend Russia’s war into Georgia, victimize civilians rather than any putative terrorists, and perpetuate Russia’s military presence in the country.

On the international level, Russian military intervention in Georgia would doom the American- and West European-sponsored projects for transporting Caspian oil and gas and for connecting Europe with Central Asia. In all these projects, Georgia is the linchpin country–a fact on which Presidents George W. Bush and Shevardnadze focused during the latter’s recent visit to the United States.

Moscow’s choice of timing for its moves–just days after Shevardnadze’s official visit to the United States, and only days before his scheduled visit to NATO and European Union headquarters in Brussels–suggests two possibilities. Either Moscow underestimates the extent of U.S. and West European displeasure with a Russian military intervention in Georgia, or, alternatively, Moscow may intend to demonstrate its unconcern with such displeasure, and to stake conclusively its claim to a sphere of influence in the South Caucasus. In either case, Moscow seems intent on capitalizing as quickly as possible on the United States’ overwhelming preoccupation with its global antiterrorism effort, apparently viewing this situation as a transitory opportunity for Moscow to make gains in the “near abroad” (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Interfax, RIA, Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostey, October 8-10; Krasnaya Zvezda, October 9; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 10; see the Monitor, September 21, 25, October 3).