Grim signals are emerging on the anniversary of last year’s five-day war between Russia and Georgia. Russia has accused Georgia several times in the past few months of shelling South Ossetia, most recently over an August 1 incident, which Georgia denies, and which EU monitors in South Ossetia — the only multinational mission still permitted by Russia — cannot confirm even happened, because their movements in the province are restricted. Moscow followed the latest accusation with a stern warning to Tbilisi that it would use force if necessary to safeguard the breakaway provinces.
On August 4, South Ossetia’s authorities closed the border with Georgia, coincident with complaints from Tbilisi that Russian troops were “redrawing” the border by setting up a tactical position on its Georgian side. Russian troops were put on their highest state of alert on August 5; and on August 6, Moscow urged Tbilisi, in contumacious language, to sign nonaggression treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which only Russia and Nicaragua recognize as independent nations.
As Russia’s government intensifies its public argument that Georgia is acting provocatively and one of its senior officials makes the case that Russia’s predicted isolation in the wake of last year’s conflict “never happened,” the focus of U.S. State and Defense Department testimony to the Senate this week is on balanced engagement with Georgia and on promoting democratic improvements. A 2009 assessment by U.S. military advisers, for example, concluded that Georgia needs better organization, training, and doctrine for her armed forces before there should be any talk about actually selling Georgia weapons. The Defense official assured Senator Jim DeMint (R-TN) that “nothing is off the table” in this regard, “but we believe a phased approach is the way to go.” The focus of military cooperation will be on readying Georgian troops to deploy to Afghanistan.
Georgia proposed this summer that the EU-monitoring mission admit U.S. members, a move strongly endorsed by Poland, Lithuania, and Finland, among others. The EU turned the suggestion down in late July. No U.S. “engagement” with this proposal has been evident, other than reported statements that Georgia has not made a formal request. More recent engagement may include the unheralded visit to Georgia on August 6 by Daniel Fried, a State Department official who played a key role in responding to last year’s conflict. Fried’s new portfolio, however, is “Guantanamo Closure Czar,” and his dedicated travels for that project since May suggest another possibility.
We can expect even fewer tactical warnings of Russian intentions this year. Moscow has 15,000 troops in the breakaway provinces now and need not build forces up as overtly as in 2008. Russia is unlikely to “move” on the anniversary of the 2008 invasion but is clearly selling a theme of Georgian provocation in relation to it. Georgian allegations this spring that Russia is funding the nation’s internal opposition suggest a comprehensive pressure approach by Moscow: the Russians would probably prefer inducing Saakashvili’s government’s fall over invading and conquering. But the “information” campaign in Russian media is designed to justify military action.
America appears to be replaying the prelude to last year’s invasion of Georgia. Our “phased,” business-as-usual approach to Georgia’s defense is put in useful perspective by this excellent analysis of a diplomat who drew the following conclusion about the events of 2008:
So how did the U.S. government “fail so spectacularly” in predicting Russian aggression into Georgia? The answer, according to Smith, is “cognitive dissonance.” “We so much wanted to believe that what was happening wasn’t happening” that we overlooked all the obvious signals — both military and diplomatic, he said.
His presentation makes it clear that we are engaged today in ignoring the same signals that befuddled us in 2008. Last time, Russia came out of the invasion with both of the breakaway provinces. Next time, Moscow is likely to come out of it with a leadership of its choosing holding power in Tbilisi.