An anniversary appears to be passing peacefully: that of Russia’s August 26, 2008, recognition of Georgian provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations. Dmitry Medvedev is, of course, taking this opportunity to renew his call for recognition of the provinces’ independence by other nations. Georgia last week detained a Turkish-operated fuel tanker delivering cargo to Abkhazia in violation of Georgian law, an assertion of sovereignty that might be expected to anger Moscow. Meanwhile, about 70 U.S. Marines have arrived in Georgia to train its forces for a deployment to Afghanistan, a development Moscow views with disfavor (and of which the U.S. embassy in Georgia is careful to say “No weapons will be provided to the Georgians as part of this training”).
Nevertheless, the anniversary is passing without incident. Moscow has even announced, after saber-rattling and rumored troop buildups in the disputed provinces in early August, that Russian forces are drawing down their current level in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Western analysts, we should note, believe Russia has at least 10,000 troops in the provinces rather than the 4,000-5,000 claimed by Moscow. The EU monitoring mission is unable to confirm numbers because its movements in the provinces are restricted by Russian troops. Can this be a triumph for “smart power” diplomacy?
A broader view gives us cause to doubt it, for at least three reasons. One is that Russia is currently facing a renewed spate of violence from separatist groups in the northern Caucasus, in which analysts discern increased sophistication and diversification of tactics. The violence is likely to subside with the onset of autumn, but Russia may want to shift troops to the Chechen region now to deal with it.
Moscow has fewer troops to pull from elsewhere for reason No. 2: the two major military exercises underway on Russia’s northern and western frontiers. Like the earlier exercise “Kavkaz-2009,” conducted in the Caucasus in June and July, “Ladoga-2009” and “Zapad-2009” are the largest of their kind since the 1980s. Together they are putting 60,000 ground troops through their paces, along with naval and air-defense forces, bombers, special forces, and the border guard, operating across Russia from the Far East to Arctic Siberia and into the Baltic region and Belarus. Uneasy Europeans are focused on the analysis that Russia is practicing to defend its Baltic Sea gas pipeline (against whom is not obvious).
But the scope of the exercises is also feeding Canada’s growing concern about Russian activities in the Arctic, which Canada is countering this month with a major Arctic exercise of its own. The Ladoga and Zapad exercises are too big and complex to be predicated on a single regional task and are reminiscent of the Moscow-directed “theater of war” exercises in the Soviet era. Russia’s current force readiness need not be exaggerated in order for the unique post-Soviet scope of the exercises to be properly appreciated—and their signal understood.
It is in this context that the third reason to hold off on praising “smart power” should be viewed: Russia’s renewed diplomatic campaign against Ukraine. An IMF loan in July forestalled Kiev’s pending default on its natural-gas bill from Russia, but on August 11 Medvedev announced he would not be sending his newly appointed ambassador to Ukraine owing to President Viktor Yushchenko’s “anti-Russian course.” Along with continuing complaints about Ukraine arming Georgia, Moscow leveled the charge this week that Ukrainians actually fought for Georgia in the 2008 war. Coming on top of Medvedev’s explicit hope that Ukrainians will reject Yushchenko in their January 2010 election, this series of diplomatic jabs argues that Russia has shifted not its Black Sea policies but its current target, from Georgia to Ukraine.
Perhaps Georgia can breathe a little easier for now (although the Russian-troop situation there remains unclear). But with Russian exercises alarming our NATO allies and Ukraine (which finds itself under renewed diplomatic assault), we might wonder which of Russia or the U.S. is using “smart power” more effectively.