Russia Advances Its Interests as the U.S. Keeps Pushing the ‘Reset Button’

by Giorgi Kvelashvili

The Russian media has not hidden its delight at President Obama’s decision to halt the American anti-missile plan for Europe. As high-level Russian leaders express their satisfaction with the American president’s “prudent” and “farsighted” accommodation of Russia’s concerns, the Kremlin has reciprocated in a typical Russian way – ascribing the ‘concession’ to the relative weakness of the West, not to its good will or desire to improve relations with Russia – and capitalizing on ‘the Russian victory’ by more energetically advancing its self interest in the ‘near abroad.’

On September 21, the Russian media reported that the Russian corvette Novorossiysk began patrolling the Black Sea coast of the Russian occupied Georgian province of Abkhazia. According to the Russian news agency Regnum, “it is planned to send ten motor boats in total to protect the maritime borders of the [Abkhaz] republic, and they will be based in [the harbor of the town of] Ochamchire,” near the administrative border with the rest of Georgia.

As Jamestown’s Eurasia Blog reported earlier, a new ‘sea phase’ of confrontation between Russia and Georgia came as Tbilisi was desperately trying to protect its sovereignty in its own territorial waters. The Kremlin’s reaction was swift, starting with bellicose rhetoric by the government in Sokhumi and then rapidly escalating to implement ‘concrete steps,’ meticulously designed by the Kremlin.

The Russian decision to advance the process of occupation of Abkhazia by including the sea coast was met with a lukewarm reaction from the European Union whose monitoring mission in Georgia issued a statement urging “all sides concerned to refrain from words and actions that could cause an increase in tension and a deterioration of the situation”.

Apparently this balanced and evenhanded announcement has been interpreted by the Russians if not as encouragement than as proof that Europe – the main guarantor of the post-war Russo-Georgian agreement – would do little to make the Kremlin abide by its international obligations.

Following a failed attempt to oust the pro-Western Georgian government of President Saakashvili during and shortly after the Russian military aggression in August 2008, Moscow has realized that a more patient and deliberate policy aimed at gradually isolating and distancing Georgia from the West could better serve its strategic plan of imperial dominance.

By stationing naval forces in Georgia’s territorial waters along the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia the Russians are trying to prevent both Georgia’s exercise of its sovereign rights and any future U.S. maritime maneuvers in the region. Russia has long claimed that there are new realities created after the war and both regional and international actors have to come to terms with them.

On September 21, the vice speaker of the Russian State Duma, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, notoriously famous for his anti-Georgian and anti-Western rhetoric, was quoted as saying that it would be only natural that Obama’s abandonment of the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic be followed by “taking off the agenda the issue of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO membership once and for all”.

It remains to be seen if this will indeed be the West’s next step for the sake of improved relations with Russia and if it will come at the expense of the sovereign rights of the post-Soviet states.