Russia Monday launched Kavkaz 2009—the largest ever military exercise in the North Caucasus—possibly the prelude to another assault on Georgia.  Meanwhile, rumors of war loom like thunderheads on a hot summer evening.

  “All Russia’s propaganda outlets have been talking about the possibility,” Andrei Illarionov, disaffected former economic adviser to then Russian President Vladimir Putin, told Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.  We should neither over-react nor under-react to those rumors—and we should expect the unexpected.

Kavkaz 2009 runs to July 6.  Without precedent, the Chief of General Staff, General Nikolai Makarov, is in direct command.  The exercise will involve “all brigades of the North Caucasus Military District (NCMD), the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla marine brigades,” Makarov told reporters.  It will involve 8,500 troops, 200 tanks, 250 artillery tubes and 450 armored vehicles.

“The most dangerous period within which a new full-scale war with Georgia might occur,” writes Novaya Gazeta columnist Pavel Felgenhauer, will be “while the invasion forces are already deployed and poised for action, under the cover of Kavkaz 2009.”  Felgenhauer predicted Russia’s August 2008 attack on Georgia, which came on the heels of Kavkaz 2008.

Illarionov recounts how Kavkaz 2008 unfolded into war in a chapter of The Guns of August 2008, edited by Svante Cornell and Frederick Starr.  “On July 15, NCMD troops began large scale military maneuvers…with the participation of 8,000 servicemen from the army, interior forces and the FSB, including 700 armored units, and with the support of the Air Force and the Black Sea Fleet.”

Like Kavkaz 2009, last year’s edition was commanded by Makarov, then North Caucasus commander.

Illarionov continues, “Participants in the exercises were given a leaflet entitled, Soldier! Know Your Enemy! with a description of the Georgian forces” that they were soon to face.

Russian military and civilian officials boasted that they would soon invade Georgia.

Russia brazenly conducted parts of Kavkaz 2008 on Georgian territory.  General-Major Vyacheslav Borisov recently told Ekho Moskvy radio, “I was in command of South Ossetian and Georgian directions…our troops received a full-scale practice, as we had conducted exercises in those very areas just one week earlier.”

Russia invaded Georgia early on August 7, 2008.

Kavkaz 2009 looks like a repeat performance, including exercising on Russian-occupied Georgian territory.  Russian Ground Forces Commander General Vladimir Boldyrev told RIA / Novosti on June 18 that “the 4th and 7th Brigades in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are on full combat readiness.  They are defending civilians and are ready to repulse any aggression.”

But, asks Yulia Latynina in the June 23 Moscow Times, “If Georgia is really planning to start a war, why is Russia going to such lengths to expel international observers who will be able to testify to the whole world how Georgia started the war?”  Moscow vetoed renewal of United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers and it bars European Union monitors from occupied Georgian territories.

As the title of Latynina’s article suggests, “Russia is preparing for round 2 of [the] Georgia war.”  Preparation includes Kremlin control of what we hear and when we hear it.

That rumors of war originate in Moscow is reason not to over-react to them.  Moscow would love to watch Tbilisi stumble into a situation that Russia could claim fulfills its prophecy of Georgian aggression.  Meanwhile, talk of war raises anxiety in Georgia, stokes unprincipled political rhetoric and discourages investment.

However, we must not under-react.  Russia invaded Georgia last August, and the pattern of events that preceded that assault is remarkably similar to that of contemporary events.  Moreover, Illarionov, Felgenhauer and Latynina are well-connected in Moscow.  They may not know what political decision has been or will be made, but their reports indicate that another Russian attack on Georgia is discussed in the corridors of the Kremlin and the offices of Prime Minister Putin.

Consequently, the west must now draw a bright diplomatic red line.  When US President Barack Obama visits Moscow next week, he must tell Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that any Russian aggression against Georgia will short-circuit whatever “reset” there might have been in US-Russian relations.

Meanwhile, western countries must clearly support Georgia in appropriate, timely self defense measures.  There must be no implicit expectation that Georgia should stand flat-footed until another Russian onslaught is nigh.

Regrettably, a reprise of last summer is possible.  So, too, are unexpected acts of war—a cyber attack more sophisticated than the one that presaged last summer’s assault; a grab for vulnerable territory in the western region of Samegrelo; blockade of the ports of Batumi and Poti; fabricated unrest in minority-populated areas of Georgia; mysterious explosions along the East-West energy pipelines; and more.

Of course, Moscow may just raise the summer heat with serial rumors of imminent hostilities.

It will be a hot summer in Georgia.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  This column appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.