On what was known during the Soviet era as Armed Forces Day, Russia and Georgia seem just a step away from a war footing, as they continue to assail each other over the separatist territory of South Ossetia. The acrimonious exchanges have prompted some Russian political analysts to embrace the concept of "regime change" in Georgia.
Bilateral relations nosedived after the Georgian parliament adopted a resolution February 15 demanding the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The resolution provoked outrage in Russia, where the State Duma on February 17 approved its own statement, warning Tbilisi that efforts to aggravate the situation in South Ossetia would endanger the "vitally important interests of Russia's national security."
In recent days, all channels of communications appear to have broken down. A Georgian delegation did not show up for a February 20 session of the Joint Control Commission -- a group comprising representatives of Georgia, Russia and North and South Ossetia that is charged with mediating disputes and promoting peace talks. On February 21, Moscow announced that it was suspending issuing visas to Georgian citizens. Russian officials also called off a visit by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli that had originally scheduled for March. Noghaideli jabbed at Russia over the cancellation, stating on Rustavi-2 television that Georgia believed that "problems can only be resolved through dialogue. They [Russian officials] decided otherwise."
As the prime minister's comments indicate, Russia and Georgia are already engaged in a war of words. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking February 22 while on a state visit to Azerbaijan, accused the Georgian government of trying to distract Georgians from domestic difficulties by stoking confrontation with Russia. "If anybody thinks that these kinds of problems can be resolved simply by deflecting the population's attention to search for foreign enemies, I suggest that this is the wrong path," Putin said in comments broadcast by Russia's Radio Mayak. "You can deflect their attention, but economic and social problems will still need to be tackled."
Meanwhile, Eduard Kokoity, Moscow's proxy leader of South Ossetia's unrecognized government, claimed that Tbilisi "intends to stage a military operation" in the region, the Interfax-AVN news agency reported. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov complained bitterly on February 17 that Georgia was using "all sorts of dirty tricks" to push Russian troops out of South Ossetia.
Georgian leaders are adamant on their desire to see Russian peacekeepers leave South Ossetia. Tbilisi is driven by a conviction that Moscow is an obstacle to peace in the region. According to Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, Russia wants to maintain the status quo of "no peace, no war" because it benefits the Kremlin's geopolitical interests. Some Russian strategists concede that settlement of Georgia's separatist conflicts -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- could clear the way for Georgia's accession to NATO a concept that is anathema to the Kremlin.
"The present situation simply cannot go on," Burjanadze said in an interview with the Russian news website Strana.ru. "We don't want confrontation or war, but when someone purposefully takes our homeland away from us we will not stand silent or inactive." Instead of Russian peacekeepers, Georgia is pushing for the deployment of an international force in the belief that such a switch would quickly produce a peace treaty.
Tbilisi on February 21 accused Russia of staging a provocation, in which two Russian military jets violated Georgian airspace. Moscow dismissed the accusation. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in televised remarks made after the alleged incident, called on Georgians to "ignore any kind of rhetoric, threat and provocation."
Russian leaders seem unwilling to budge on the peacekeeper issue. Any concessions, according to the prevailing view in Moscow, would seriously damage Russia's geopolitical position in the Caucasus. Some analysts also worry that if Tbilisi ever manages to reestablish its authority in South Ossetia, Russia would be confronted with a migration crisis. Virtually all residents of South Ossetia are Russian citizens, and Sergei Panteleyev, who heads the Institute for the Study of Russians Abroad, suggested recently that a large number of Ossetians would opt to go to Russia rather than remain in the region under Georgian authority, the Moscow Times reported.
Judging by recent comments by high-profile Russian commentators, it would appear that Russia's political elite, confronted with a determined foe and a tenuous negotiating position, is growing frustrated. Indeed, Russian political analysts have started to take aim at Saakashvili personally. Gleb Pavlovsky -- the host of the Realnaya Politika television program who is known as a staunch defender of Kremlin policies -- attacked the Georgian president as a "war-monger." And not satisfied with character assassination, Pavlovsky went on to hint that the real thing could be called for. During a recent program, Pavlovsky said, "one bullet is cheaper than war," echoing comments made by former US presidential spokesman Ari Fleisher in October 2002. Fleisher's comments referred to US efforts to oust Saddam Hussein prior to the American invasion of Iraq.
Other Russian commentators, though far less provocative, have also suggested that it will be impossible for Moscow to find any sort of accommodation with Georgia as long as Saakashvili's administration is in power. "The only hope for the restoration of the good-neighborly ties" between the two countries is "the change of Georgia's leadership," Vladimir Romanenko, the first deputy director of the CIS Institute said in the recent interview with the Politcom.ru website.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.