The signs from The Republic of Georgia are ominous. News reports of exchanges of fire between South Ossetia and Georgia. An intercepted Nashi provocation. And most importantly, repeated Russian histrionics over NATO exercises in Georgia. These exercises were planned prior to last year’s war, and in any event, are basically a glorified staff exercise, rather than serious maneuvers. But Medvedev has made a big deal out of them:
“This is the wrong decision, a dangerous decision,” Medvedev told a news conference at his state residence outside Moscow.
“Decisions of this kind are aimed at muscle-flexing,” he said. “Such decisions are disappointing and do not facilitate the resumption of full scale contacts between the Russian Federation and NATO.”
Tensions over Georgia have been running high since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s failed bid to retake the pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia in August.
Russia has stationed its forces just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Georgian capital, in violation of the EU-brokered cease-fire that ended last year’s brief war. And in recent weeks, it has sent even more troops and armored vehicles to within striking distance of the city ahead of street protests against Georgia’s president.
But don’t worry! They will get a stern talking to!:
The European Union and United States consider Russia to be in violation of the cease-fire signed by President Dmitry Medvedev, which called for troops to pull back to positions held before the war began.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country takes the EU’s rotating chairmanship in July, said this week that the EU has often pointed out to Russia that it is not in compliance and “will continue to point this out.”
Oh, many it won’t be that stern. “Pointing out” barely makes it to “tepid,” let alone stern
Pavel Felgenhauer, who correctly predicted the onset of the Russo-Georgian War last year, is convinced that Russia will finish the job this year. The limp-wristed European, NATO, and yes, American responses to Russia’s increasing pressure, and skirting–and arguably flouting–the cease fire must give Russia confidence that swallowing Georgia will entail little if no political or diplomatic cost, let alone a military one.
Indeed, Russia’s domestic economic troubles may provide a strong spur to foreign adventurism. I suggested yesterday that Putin was betraying signs of desperation as the economic situation worsens. Fear of unrest, be it among the elite, or the populace at large, always weighs heavily on the minds of autocrats. In such a system, a foreign war can be very useful politically.
The hysterical reaction to the NATO exercises in Georgia cannot be a rational reaction to any military threat posed by the NATO troops, who will be represented by less than a company per nation participating. Nor can it be a rational reaction to any threat that the exercises will bolster the Georgian military sufficiently to pose any threat to Russia.
It could be explained, however, as the reaction of a government that perceives the presence of even small numbers of NATO troops interferes with its timetable to launch a war. If a splendid little war is needed to short circuit domestic discontent, even a delay could be quite costly indeed.
Whatever the reason for the Russian troop movements, the border clash, and the overwrought reaction to what are about the most benign military exercises imaginable do not bode well.