Russian troops are a mere “25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Georgian capital, in violation of the European Union-brokered cease-fire that ended last year’s brief war,” Lynn Berry reports for AP. All indications are that Moscow is increasing pressure on President Mikheil Saakashvili amidst a protest movement.
At a military checkpoint between Georgia and its breakaway region of South Ossetia, the word “Russia” is hand-painted in pink on a concrete security barrier. “It will be Russia,” said a Russian army lieutenant as the Ossetian soldiers under his command nodded. “And Georgia used to be Russian, too,” said the young freckle-faced lieutenant, who would give only his first name, Sergei. Three armored personnel carriers and a tank were dug in around the checkpoint.
Obviously, the political musings of lieutenants aren’t worth much, as I can personally attest. But this is worrisome:
And in recent weeks, it has put even more soldiers and armored vehicles within striking distance of the city ahead of street protests against Georgia’s president. The protests, which began April 9, drew about 10,000 people Tuesday, and opposition leaders said they would continue daily until President Mikhail Saakashvili resigned. The demonstrations have been fed by public anger over Georgia’s humiliating defeat in the August war, which left Russian troops on previously Georgian-controlled territory and drove tens of thousands of Georgians from their homes.
By reinforcing its military presence at a time of potential political instability, Russia appears determined to maintain pressure on Saakashvili, whom Moscow has openly said must be replaced before relations can be repaired. Georgia’s Western-leaning government accuses the Kremlin of hoping to capitalize on political unrest to restore its influence over the former Soviet republic, which for almost 200 years was ruled by Moscow.
The presence of the Russian troops poses a dilemma for Washington as it aims to improve relations with Moscow. Georgia worries the Obama administration will be reluctant to pressure Russia to comply with the cease-fire while seeking its cooperation on priority issues like the war in Afghanistan and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Tensions over Georgia also complicate efforts to restore ties between Russia and NATO, which broke off contacts following the war. Russia has strongly objected to NATO military exercises scheduled to begin May 6 in Georgia and has warned the U.S. against helping Georgia rebuild its army.
Culpability for Russia’s invasion of Georgia — while undoubtedly a violation of international law — is disputed, with the leaders of even major Western governments none too pleased with Saakasvili’s actions. Still, while it’s clear that NATO is not willing to go to war to defend Georgia’s right to govern two provinces that clearly would rather be separate, Stephen Green is right to note that we’ve got to draw a line here.
Further, as Raymond Pritchett, who blogs under the pseudonym “Galrahn” at Information Dissemination and the United States Naval Institute blog, points out, this move by Russia isn’t a one-off: “the Black Sea Fleet deployed 22 ships last week, including 3-4 amphibious ships with Marines.”
He observes, “From where the Russian Army is, it is a 40 minute drive to the Georgian capitol. See previous analysis here. I have no idea if Russia will actually do it, but I don’t see anyone stepping in to stop them if they do.” Sadly, I fear he’s right.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.