Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Experts Divided on Probability of New War with Georgia

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 1 – As Moscow continues a military exercise in the North Caucasus that it says is designed to prevent conflicts, one leading Russian expert says that the probability of a new war between Russia and Georgia may be as high as 80 percent, while another suggests that such predictions themselves constitute “a dangerous provocation.”
Because Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 followed summer Russian military maneuvers in the North Caucasus, its current maneuvers in the region have led many in Moscow, Tbilisi and elsewhere to speculate that the course of events last summer will be repeated during this one.
In an article on the portal today, two leading analysts square off on the likelihood of a new military conflict, with Sergey Markedonov, a leading Russian specialist on the Caucasus, arguing there is unlikely to be a war and Pavel Felgengauer, a prominent military affairs commentator, presenting the opposite view (
Markedonov argues that those who talk about a possible war “as if it were a accomplished fact” and even give “exact dates” for such a conflict are not writing “simply commentaries but rather [engaging in] a very dangerous provocation.” Neither Russia nor Georgia needs or wants a conflict now, he suggests.
“In the government of Russia, there are no idiots ready to take such steps,” he says, and he offers three reasons for that. First, there are the upcoming negotiations with US President Barak Obama about strategic nuclear weapons, talks which are “important to Russia” and which the outbreak of a conflict could threaten.
Suppose for a minute that as these talks are going on, “a war with Georgia” breaks out. “What do you think Obama would do? It is not excluded that he would break off the talks and leave,” not an outcome that the Moscow leadership or the American leadership for that matter would be very happy about.
Second, Markedonov argues that “after the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is not at all interested in a new escalation of the conflict.” It has its forces and regimes where it wants them. And “if there had been a desire to occupy Tbilisi, this would already have been done in August of last year.”
And third, he points out, “it is necessary to understand that any politician who comes to power after [Georgian President Mikhiel] Saakashvili be it [Irakli] Alasania or [Nino] Burjanadze will not be pro-Russian. And that will be even more true if this [change in Tbilisi] occurs in the course of military actions.
At the same time, Markedonov insists, Georgia too “cannot be interested in a war now” because “many of the illusions [its leadership had last year] have already been dispelled, since the situation now is far from the most favorable.” First of all, Saakashvili “does not have the sympathy of the West” that he did.
Second, “Georgia’s strategic positions are much worse than they were a year ago,” even if one considers that only from the point of view of geography. And third, Georgia, which has received negative comments from European institutions in the past for last year’s conflict, would receive even more negative ones if it appeared that Tbilisi had in any way triggered a new war.
But Markedonov says that the biggest mistake those who predicting a new conflict on the basis of the ongoing maneuvers are making is to assume that the war last year was a rapid reaction “to the events of August 7-8.” In fact, last year’s war was, in Markedonov’s view, “the result of a four-year-long policy of Georgia” and Moscow’s plans to counter it.
In response, Felgengauer argues that the probability of a new war is “quite high, from 50 to 80 percent,” with the conflict most likely to begin “in the middle of July because otherwise it would be senseless to conduct exercises if the war were being prepared for August, and September is already late.”
The Moscow military expert makes three arguments in support of his conclusion. First, Moscow’s military maneuvers in the region have grown larger and have become more focused on Georgia than in the past. Second, Georgia can be counted on to do something that Moscow can point to as a provocation.
These Georgian actions may be no more than German claims that the Poles attacked the Germans in 1939 or Soviet suggestions in the same year that the Finns fired on the territory of the USSR. But a similar claim about Georgia will be sufficient not only to allow Moscow to act but to explain its actions to others.
And third, Felgengauer notes, there is an important difference between 2008 and 2009. “In August of last year, Georgia was not planning to fight with Russia; it had prepared for war with the separatists and therefore it suffered complete defeat. Now it is preparing for a war with Russia,” a conflict it cannot win but one that might draw in others on its side.
But the Moscow writer’s clinching argument from his point of view appears to be this: Moscow was able to fight a war last year without being punished or even all that seriously condemned by the international community, and thus Russian leaders thus have concluded that they can engage in a new war at little or no cost.

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