As Abe nicely captures it, Joe Biden’s advice to Georgians this week is a masterpiece of end-of-life counseling. A “good counselor/bad counselor” dynamic seems to be emerging with the Obama-Biden foreign relations team. Biden’s entourage also performed a key role in a subtle interplay during the Georgia visit, when Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Grigory Karasin, warned third parties against selling arms to Georgia. Karasin invoked a January decree by Medvedev on “measures taken to prohibit the supply of military and double-purpose products to Georgia.” Said Karasin: “The decree foresees the use of special economic measures in relation to nations, international organizations and individuals supplying military equipment to Georgia.” The U.K. Guardian interprets this as a threat to the United States, but the Moscow Times may be more accurate in emphasizing the threat to Georgia’s regular arms suppliers in Eastern Europe. Either way, the assurance issued yesterday by a senior official traveling with Biden that the U.S. will not be selling arms to Georgia could not have been timed better to evoke appeasement.
Analysis on the arms-sales threat has focused on Russia’s severing military cooperation with Georgia’s patrons. But Moscow may be preparing for something more robust: economic measures against Russia’s trading partners in Eastern Europe, a threat to interdict Caspian Sea gas flowing through Georgia, and possibly a maritime arms embargo on Georgia. Moscow’s recent history with economic pressure includes arm-twisting Ukraine and its E.U. gas customers and cutting off Belarus’s access to Russian markets in order to force political concessions. Russia is redeveloping a Soviet-era naval base in Abkhazia only a few kilometers from the Georgian border: a small but well-placed facility that would allow the Russian navy to control Georgia’s entire coast. A Russian embargo would not have to entail capital warship encounters at sea. Armed patrol craft operating along Georgia’s short coastline would be enough to turn merchant ships away. Georgia has no current arms suppliers who would make more than one attempt to deliver their goods. The pipeline heads on the coast are equally vulnerable.
Russia seems to be preparing for timing as early as August, given Karasin’s references to “provocations” expected from Georgia on the anniversary of last year’s invasion. The main condition Russia needs to implement its provocative measures is inactivity by the U.S. After a series of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations that could have been scripted by Monty Python — a NATO exercise in Georgia in June; Russia’s Kavkaz-2009 shortly thereafter; Obama’s visit to Moscow; Medvedev’s visit to South Ossetia on July 13; the visit of the USS Stout, an Aegis destroyer, to Georgia on July 14 (attended by ostentatious Russian target practice at sea); Biden’s visit to Georgia yesterday — Georgia’s fate will come down to what Putin and Medvedev think they can get away with. Unbearable pressure may be enough, with America’s global end-of-life counselors helping Georgia interpret the writing on the wall.