Just when we thought that things couldn’t get any hotter between Russia, Georgia, and the frozen conflict of Abkhazia, further events this week have sent the region toward the brink of outright war. Earlier this week Georgian authorities arrested, then released, four Russian peace keepers near the city of Zugdidi whom they had accused of illegally transporting arms. Russia reacted sharply, and following a call between Mikheil Saakashvili and Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin issued a pointed statement warning against “provocations.”
Coincidentally, Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs of the U.S. State Department, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on this very issue today: “The policy of the United States in this region is unambiguous: we want to help the nations of this region travel along the same path toward freedom, democracy and market-based economies that so many of their neighbors to the West have traveled. We believe that the ultimate place of these nations – which are, after all, a part of Wider Europe – ought to depend on their own choice and their own success, or lack of success, in meeting the standards of democracy, the rule of law, and responsible foreign and regional policies that the transatlantic community has established. We do not believe that any outside power – neither Russia nor any other – should have a sphere of influence over these countries; no outside power should be able to threaten, pressure, or block the sovereign choice of these nations to join with the institutions of Europe and the transatlantic family if they so choose and we so choose.“The continuing sovereignty issues between Georgia and Russia are a strong illustration of some fundamental lessons in Kremlinology.As best described in the Soviet era in Margot Light’s seminal book Internal Factors in Russian Foreign Policy, the Abkhazia issue reflects a trend of domestic drivers within the Kremlin, along with unstable clan wars, determining regional policy. There is a need among many key silovik groups within the Kremlin to continue stirring the Georgian pot to maintain the appearance of an external threat while warding off the image of impotence portrayed by inaction on Kosovo.This coincides with last week’s desperate trip by Gazprom to Azerbaijan, where they offered the Azeris quadruple the price that the Georgians had paid for reserve gas, which is yet a further demonstration of both the willingness to accept whatever the political costs are of using energy as a weapon and the need to extract concessions from Georgia. This is all done in the aim of establishing the proper status quo that will allow for the facilitation of the Sochi Winter Olympic games.As for the Georgians, options are running out. They have been sorely let down by the Germans and the French, who have demonstrated yet again a willingness to drop values, defy principle, and agree with Moscow that “spheres of influence” exist in the former Soviet territories. This reaction from Europe has signaled some of the more radical elements in then Kremlin that they may have something of a free hand with respect to some of these non-strategic frozen conflicts. And that’s going to be trouble for everybody.