The South Caucasus has always been a volatile and unstable region riven by ethnic conflict and instability. This has especially been the case since the breakup of the Soviet Union and not least because the region is often considered the gateway between Europe and Central Asia, as well as where the competing interests of the West and Russia collide.
For those readers that have no idea where the Caucasus is, The Reference Frame provides a handy color-coded guide.
Look at the map. Start with the yellow disk, a global perspective. We are discussing the piece of land (blue rectangle) in between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. There are Caucasus Mountains over there as well as many cacophonic pairs of nations. The region is as dangerous for the peace as the Balkans on the opposite side of the Black Sea. […]
This is definitely the case in Georgia where tensions with Russia have increased to the extent that Reuters reports that the battle of words between Tbilisi and Moscow might yet turn into war over the breakaway and defacto independent [Georgian] region of Abkhazia.
The increased tension follows last month's apparent downing of a Georgian drone allegedly by a Russian MiG-29 and reports that Russian troops are being sent to Abkhazia in case of a Georgian attempt to re-take the territory by force. As Hot Air explains, Russia and Georgia are playing brinkmanship again, but this time the consequences are uncertain.
Russia and Georgia have played at brinksmanship for quite a while, and while neither of them would benefit from a war, the tussle over Abkhazia might inadvertently set one in motion. Abkhazia is actually a secondary issue for Russia, although not a false premise for their policy. They see Abkhazia as within their sphere of influence, but Putin really wants an end to NATO expansion at the expense of Russia.
Both Moscow and Tbilisi are playing hardball over Russian attempts to keep Georgia within its political orbit. It demonstrates that the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed consequences that have not yet fully played out, and that the “end of history” was anything but. If Putin and his hardliners insist on maintaining a quasi-empire in the breakaway republics, and if the West continues to counter those impulses, a flash point seems almost inevitable.
The Oil and the Glory, the blog of former Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalist Steve Levine who has covered Central Asia and the Caucasus for over a decade, wonders why the situation has emerged now.
What is Russia's move really all about? Surely it's not concern over Abkhaz security — a Georgian military attack in order to bring the region back into the Georgian fold verges on ludicrous, mainly since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili knows he would lose, either to the Abkhaz themselves or a predictable Russian counter-offensive.
Is Putin simply demonstrating yet again that Russia won't be pushed around? Is he bestowing an image-building conflict on his successor, in the way that Chechnya built up Putin's own nationalist credentials when he took power in 1999 with a popularity rating of 2%?
Others are also asking why the increased tensions are happening, but from a different perspective. TOL Georgia, for example, thinks it is not coincidental that parliamentary elections are due to be held in the former Soviet republic later this month. Tensions with Russia usually result in increased support at home for the Georgian authorities, it says.
If there are elections in Georgia, you may bet some major scandal will take place with Russia — most probably over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia or South Ossetia.
There was a spy scandal before the elections in 2006; then there was President Saakashvili’s brave intervention in a brawl in Gunmukhuri camp and finally now there is the downing of the Georgian drone and Russia’s decision to legalize ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It is not to say of course that Russian and Georgian authorities somehow act in accord. No, far from that. Just that Russians are consistently aggressive and if they wanted to see Saakashvili leave Georgia, they would not pitch him the major international incidents right before the elections.
Registan, however, considers that the latest Georgian-Russian spat has more to do with other factors, and not least support from the West for Kosovo's Independence as well as problems with Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
This is probably tied to Georgia’s quest to block Russia’s membership in the WTO. Georgia has suspended its bilateral talks with Russia, which are a condition of Russia’s WTO ascension, on the condition that Moscow halt its growing ties with the separatist governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And now Russia steps forward with talks of Georgia invading Abkhazia.
It’s not that the timing is too convenient, which it is, but that is might not matter. Both Georgia and Russia have a habit of badly overplaying their hand in the battle for sympathetic ears in the West. In this case, Russia has a particularly weak hand—its fondness for separatist movements appears not to extend to either Kosovo, or Chechnya.
Foreign Policy Passport isn't too concerned about the possibility of war between Georgia and Russia, although it does acknowledge that the situation could get out of hand. Indeed, it quotes one Russian commentator: “Recall how World War I began. […] This scenario could be repeated in the Caucasus,” but still concludes that the escalation is likely just belligerent posturing.
Despite the inflammatory rhetoric, it still seems unlikely to me that Georgia would actually go to war with its much larger and militarily superior neighbor. Since Georgia is looking for NATO protection and Russia wants keep Georgia out of NATO at any cost, the war of words seems tailored for an audience in Washington and Brussels. Both sides have a vested interest in the rest of the world perceiving the threat of war as genuine.
In a volatile region such as the South Caucasus where conflict always runs the risk of overspilling into neighboring countries and destabilizing more than just the immediate area, let's hope that remains the case.