Writing in the conservative National Interest on Thursday, Brooke Leonard warned that it is unwise for the U.S. to "accus[e] Russia of attempting to goad Georgia into war" over Abkhazia by "allegedly shooting down Georgian military planes," when, in fact, "[r]eality is far more complex."[1]  --  Abkhazia is an autonomous region of Georgia that now has de facto independence, and though Moscow is being accused of threatening in invade, Russia already "has a friendly government in the republic and maintains a military base and U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping troops."  --  Leonard's piece was a response to a column published on Tuesday in the Washington Post[2] that he characterized as "simplistic and therefore misleading" and that"in essence encourag[ed] an ally to move toward confrontation with Moscow, while we have no intention, as Applebaum rightly implies, of providing them with military assistance to accomplish their objectives."  --  AFP reported Thursday that the president of Georgia said with respect to war with Russia that "several days ago we were close and this threat remains."[3]  --  BACKGROUND: None of these articles mentions oil, or the U.S. interest in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.  --  In this context, it is interesting to review an August 2005 Iranian analysis of U.S. policy in the Caucasus region that said that "the U.S. has begun to intervene openly in the Southern Caucasus, favoring certain political parties jostling for power. . . . Since February 2002, U.S. forces have been stationed in the Pankisi Valley of Georgia under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda terrorists, but not even a single terrorist has been apprehended. . . . The U.S. seeks to control oil and gas exploration in the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus in order to keep out Iran and Russia, which are the two major regional powers. . . . The U.S. has no intention of resolving the chronic crises in the region such as that of Qarabagh and Abkhazia, and merely wants to procrastinate the problems in order to justify its presence and intervention."  --  The U.S. is especially interested in Azerbaijan, where U.S. oil interests invested heavily in the 1990s, and to which the Clinton administration effectively extended the Carter Doctrine (Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Petroleum Dependency [Metropolitian Books, 2004], pp. 132-39).  --  Chapter 11 of Jeremy Scahill's book on Blackwater is entitled "Caspian Pipeline Dreams"; Scahill wrote:  "Beginning in July 2004, Blackwater forces were contracted to work in the heart of the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea region, where they would quietly train a force modeled after the Navy SEALs and establish a base just north of the Iranian border as part of a major U.S. move in what veteran analysts in the region call the 'Great Game'" (Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army [Nation Books, 2007], p. 167)....


By Brooke Leonard

National Interest
May 8, 2008


Anne Applebaum’s column in the *Washington Post* on Tuesday raises an important point -- and an important concern. Applebaum, who is also an adjunct fellow at the neoconservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute, is right on target in her argument that the oft-forgotten de-facto-independent republic of Abkhazia could trigger war between Russia and Georgia. There is a very real possibility that tension over Abkhazia will escalate, so understanding the nature of the conflict is key. Unfortunately, Applebaum’s analysis sheds no light on the situation, but rather points to a disturbing trend in American mainstream media: presenting simplistic and therefore misleading analysis of foreign-policy issues.

So what are the facts?

Abkhazia is not exactly “a province of Georgia that declared its independence in 1992” and proceeded to engage in the ethnic cleansing of Georgians, as Applebaum states. Reality is far more complex. Abkhazia and Georgia shared equal status as Socialist Soviet Republics in the Soviet Union for a decade until Stalin demoted Abkhazia against its will to an Autonomous SSR within Georgia, but under Moscow’s overall rule. Both ethnic groups suffered periods of repression in the Soviet period, and when Georgia broke away from the USSR in 1991 under the leadership of extreme-nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Abkhazia, fearful of losing all autonomy, declared itself a sovereign republic. A brief civil war broke out in which atrocities were committed on both sides, albeit far more so by the Abkhaz. A massive flight by ethnic Georgians ensued -- not dissimilar to that of the Hindus and Muslims following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 or of the Palestinians from Israel in 1948 -- and Abkhazia has enjoyed de facto independence from Georgia ever since.

Applebaum goes on to allege that Russia “has a long-term interest in the destabilization of pro-American, pro-Western, pro-NATO Georgia.” If destabilizing Georgia has long been Russia’s intent, it is odd then that Moscow took on the role of mediator during two major crises in the country in recent years. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in essence helped Western-leaning Mikhail Saakashvili come to power by negotiating the resignation of President Eduard Svevardnadze and aided Georgia in regaining control over another secessionist region, Adjaria, by encouraging its leader to back down. Relations between the two countries soured when Saakashvili adopted anti-Russian positions and began to portray himself to the West as a leader who could stand up to Moscow. The Kremlin’s subsequent lack of eagerness to help Georgia reconquer Abzkhazia and South Ossetia should come as no surprise. What nation would want to help an openly hostile leader expand his rule?

Furthermore, Russia has been heavily criticized for allegedly shooting down Georgian military planes in what Applebaum describes as “a pretty obvious attempt to create a casus belli.” These planes, however, were actually spy drones flying over Abkhazia. So why has no one bothered to question why Georgia was violating peace agreements it signed in 1994 by flying the planes in the first place? It seems that when the United States or its allies are involved, different questions are asked and different stories are told. If Syria began flying planes over the Golan Heights, its internationally-recognized territory, wouldn’t the United States view that as an act of aggression against Israel? And wouldn’t it rightfully support its ally? Russia, however, is portrayed as intentionally provoking and even bullying “an emerging democracy, an aspiring NATO ally.”

Applebaum too refers to a possible Russian invasion of Georgia and of Abkhazia. These are two very different things. If Russia invades Georgia within the borders it currently controls, this kind of aggression would indeed deserve a strong response from the international community. But if Applebaum is in fact referring to Abkhazia, then is she arguing that the U.S. should support Tbilisi in an attempt to use military action in the autonomous republic -- clearly violating U.N. Security Council resolutions? And can Russia actually be accused of invading Abkhazia when it already has a friendly government in the republic and maintains a military base and U.N. sanctioned peacekeeping troops there? Following this logic, would Applebaum also argue that NATO invaded Kosovo when it ignored Serbia’s objection to its independence?

What is troubling is the fact that the simplistic arguments that appear in our newspapers are all too often reflected in U.S. foreign policy. We readily adopt these comfortable narratives, use them in dialogues with other major powers, and are then surprised when we don’t get what we want from others who have different views.

Consider the consequences of our pundits’ outcry of support for Georgia and accusations of Russian aggression. We are in essence encouraging an ally to move toward confrontation with Moscow, while we have no intention, as Applebaum rightly implies, of providing them with military assistance to accomplish their objectives. Were Tbilisi to follow through, Georgia would most certainly lose Abkhazia and face an even more hostile neighbor in Russia, an outcome that undermines Georgia’s sovereignty and damages America’s credibility.

It would also, of course, further stress our shaky relations with Moscow. By accusing Russia of attempting to goad Georgia into war, we are really just forcing Dmitry Medvedev to choose between remaining silent -- which could lead the Russian public to question his patriotic credentials before he has even truly begun his presidency -- and responding forcefully in his country’s defense. If we have any interest in cooperating with Moscow over issues critical to our national interest, perhaps presenting Medvedev with this kind of challenge over Abkhazia at the very beginning of his presidency is unwise.

--Brooke Leonard is a staff member at The Nixon Center.



By Anne Applebaum

** In the Georgian Province of Abkhazia, a Possible Flashpoint for a New War **

Washington Post
May 6, 2008
Page A19


Before it happened, nobody imagined that the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo would set off World War I. Before the "shot heard round the world" was fired, I doubt that 18th-century Concord expected to go down in history as the place where the American Revolution began. Before last weekend, when the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS declared that the government of Georgia was about to invade Abkhazia, nobody had really thought about Abkhazia at all. As a public service to readers who need a break from the American presidential campaign, this column is therefore devoted to considering the possibility that Abkhazia could become the starting point of a larger war.

If you haven't heard of Abkhazia, don't worry: It's a pretty safe bet that it's probably not the priority of many people in the White House, either, and it hasn't even been one of those "can you name the general who's in charge of Pakistan" trick questions in the campaign. On the contrary, Abkhazia ranks right up there with Nagorno-Karabakh, Dagestan, South Ossetia, and all the other forgotten Caucasian regions, cities, and statelets that no one wants to think about too hard but where, occasionally, something really awful happens.

For the record, Abkhazia is a province of Georgia that declared its independence in 1992. A small war followed, and ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia came after that. There have been some U.N. attempts to make peace, and Georgia has tried offering Abkhazia wide autonomy, but, mostly, Georgia and Abkhazia maintain an uneasy stalemate, which occasionally turns into an extremely uneasy stalemate. Usually this happens when an atmosphere of extreme uneasiness is useful to Russia, which is Abkhazia's closest military, economic, and political ally, and has a long-term interest in the destabilization of pro-American, pro-Western, pro-NATO Georgia.

Thus, when the Russian news agency announces that Georgia is about to invade Abkhazia, it may mean that Georgia really is about to invade Abkhazia. But it might also mean, as everyone in the region understands, that Russia is about to invade Georgia -- as a "preemptive strike," of course.

Why would the Russians do that? Or even hint that they want to do that? Russian politics having become utterly opaque, it's hard to say. Some think Russia began stirring up trouble in Abkhazia in recent weeks to exact revenge for NATO's recognition of Kosovo -- or perhaps to be able to strike quickly, had NATO decided at its recent summit to offer Georgia a clear path to membership, which President Bush vocally supported. Others think that recent Russian pronouncements, some of which come close to recognition of Abkhazian independence, are related to the inauguration this week of the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. Maybe Medvedev wants to demonstrate how tough he is, right at the beginning. Or maybe someone else wants to demonstrate how tough Medvedev is, on his behalf. In any case, someone, Abkhazian or Russian, has shot down at least two and maybe four unmanned Georgian military planes in the past six weeks in what looks like a pretty obvious attempt to create a casus belli.

It might not work -- and for the moment the Georgians say they have no intention of declaring war. But Georgia holds parliamentary elections this month, under the leadership of a president who might be grateful for a chance to look bold. If the provocation works, or if Russia does invade Georgia -- an emerging democracy, an aspiring NATO ally, a country with troops in Iraq and many implicit assurances of security from Washington and Brussels -- then the West will have to come up with a major response, if not military then political and diplomatic.

The timing couldn't be worse. There are many wonderful things about the American political system, but one of the least wonderful is the amount of energy a presidential campaign sucks out of public life. Between now and January, the current president is a lame duck: Could he make any credible response to a Russian invasion of Abkhazia, should such a thing happen? Is anybody ready to debate a whole new part of the world? Last weekend, the American media focused unprecedented attention on . . . the Guam primary, in which 4,500 people cast ballots and Barack Obama won by seven votes.

Of course, from another perspective, the timing couldn't be better: If you wanted to attack an American ally, or if you just wanted to destabilize and unnerve an American ally, wouldn't this be the perfect moment? Perhaps if the Russians don't take the opportunity, someone else will.

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Agence France-Presse
May 8, 2008


MOSCOW -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili warned Thursday of a risk of war with Russia amid tension over a separatist region, as Moscow began dual leadership under President Dmitry Medvedev and his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"I think that several days ago we were close and this threat remains. But for armed conflict you need two sides, and the Georgian side does not want this," Saakashvili told Russian journalists in the Georgian city of Batumi.

"Georgia could not fight Russia. We do not have enough battle-ready units and NATO will not help us with this," said Saakashvili, according to news agency reports.

The Georgian leader has lobbied for his former Soviet republic to join NATO.

The warning came as tensions mounted over the Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia, where Georgia has accused Russian peacekeeping troops of backing the separatists.

Medvedev, who was inaugurated as president on Wednesday, taking over from Putin, is untested on foreign policy and overshadowed by his powerful mentor.

Putin, who is known for his fiery pronouncements on Western moves in ex-Soviet states, was confirmed in the prime minister's post on Thursday.

Tensions over Abkhazia have prompted expressions of concern from the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States.

On Thursday, the EU appeared sufficiently concerned to prepare a ministerial delegation to visit Georgia on Monday in a bid to try to lower the tension in the region, according to one source.

The foreign ministers of Slovenia, Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania would among those heading for Tbilisi, an EU diplomat in Brussels told AFP.

The Slovenia EU presidency was unable to confirm the information, but also did not deny it.

On Tuesday, the United States bluntly urged Russia to "cease from further provocations" in Abkhazia and another Georgian rebel region, South Ossetia.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s in conflicts that killed several thousand people and led hundreds of thousands of Georgians to flee their homes.

The two regions have since operated as de facto independent statelets with strong backing from Russia, which has further boosted links with the separatists after recognition of Kosovo's independence by Western countries.

A Kremlin official in Moscow reacted sharply to Saakashvili's comments on Thursday. It was "difficult to believe" the Georgian leader had said the two neighbors were close to war, he said.

"Any responsible politician, never mind a head of state, could hardly throw around such pronouncements," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Russia earlier accused Georgia of preparing to invade Abkhazia and sent additional peacekeepers to the region, bringing the total number of its soldiers in the area to more than 2,500.

Russia's defense ministry on Thursday said it could raise troop levels further to 3,000 servicemen, the maximum allowed under accords to end the fighting between Georgia and Abkhaz rebels.

Georgia has denied any preparations for an attack on Abkhazia saying it wants a peaceful resolution of the stand-off. It maintains that it is Russia that is stirring up tensions in the volatile Caucasus region.

"If someone wanted to annex part of Georgia then this would unavoidably lead to consequences in the north Caucasus," Saakashvili was quoted as saying, in reference to troubled Russian provinces just to the north of Georgia, such as war-ravaged Chechnya.

Meanwhile the Abkhaz separatist leadership on Thursday claimed it had shot down another Georgian unmanned spy plane, the latest in a series of such claims. Georgia denied it occurred.

Tensions spiked last month when Georgia said a Russian fighter jet had shot down one of its unmanned spy planes, calling it "an act of aggression." Russia denied any involvement.