Wide Lines, and the Crossing Thereof

Georgia’s Saakashvili took U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to his country this week as a prime opportunity to ask for new antiaircraft and antitank weapons with which to “make any hotheads (namely, the Russians) think twice about further military adventures.”

As reported by the Washington Post, he said in a publicly aired broadcast on Monday that Putin might start a new war to distract Russians from the “pretty desperate situation” Russia is facing: an economy in crisis, diminished public support, and neighboring republics exercising more independence from Moscow.

“There are hundreds of reasons to attack Georgia,” Saakashvili said. “The only thing to stop him is a clear unequivocal message from the West that there’s going to be very grave consequences.”

He noted that the precedent is already well in place, for the U.S. Defense Department has been training and equipping the Georgian military for over a decade.

“I think the decision to help us is there,” he added. “It’s a matter of speeding up the process.”

It’s true that Putin and company have little affection for Misha. And it’s true that they desire greater control over the affairs of the Caucasus region, of which Georgia is part and parcel. Just ask Lincoln Mitchell, Columbia University assistant professor of economics.

“It is clear that Russian ambitions towards Georgia did not end with the war between the two countries last year,” wrote Mitchell in the Faster Times. “Moreover, the ceasefire agreement brokered by French President Nicholas Sarkozy has been, at least on the Russian side, honored substantially in the breach.”

But a wide line exists between disliking Misha or wanting to control him on the one hand, and militarily annexing Misha’s country on the other. There is an equally wide line between Russia’s 2008 military strike in the two republics—where it already had a military presence and had been in de facto political control of for the last 15 years—and invading the indisputably independent Georgia. Is Russia really inclined to cross both lines?

One would hope not. Consider the never-ending carnage in Chechnya,—4,379 Russian fatalities in 2002 alone, according to Russia’s ITAR-Tass News Agency (who released some incomplete statistics on its own since the Russian government never released any). Given that Georgia is much larger than Chechnya, taking it over would be certain to be a much larger endeavor with a much larger body count. A serious consideration when Russia’s population is already shrinking by 700,000 people a year, according to the CIA World Factbook. Add the certain loss of needed international prestige and developmental assistance Russia would suffer, and the prospects for an invasion of Georgia seem harder and harder to justify.

Saakashvili knows that his country is just not worth the price. So his request for new weapons is one that U.S. officials should scrutinize very, very carefully.

The fact is that the very conditions that he said might motivate Putin to launch a war—Russia’s sagging economy, Putin’s diminished popularity at home, and its government’s declining power abroad—are all ones that he himself is experiencing.

Bear in mind that Russia, for its part, has warned that Georgia\’s leadership would like to attack. Bear in mind also that the European peacekeeping force that currently patrols the border between Georgia and the two breakaway republics is one that Russia, too, endorsed as a check on Georgian aggression.

Saakashvili might simply be waiting for the peacekeeping force’s charter to expire (due to happen in September) and for the United States and its allies to induce Russia to leave the two breakaway republics (however long that takes). Then he can march back in, retake them, and use his new defensive armaments to ward off a new Russian counterattack.

If he is too bold for that, then he might settle for Plan B, which is to pass the arms along to militant groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia so that they can do the fighting and dying in his place. Russia Today reports that said militant groups are alive and well, and might have found common cause with Saakashvili long ago: A checkpoint in Ghali, Abkhazia, came under fire in late April, and terrorist attacks struck the Abkhazian capital, Sukhum, last year; Abkhazian officials accused Tbilisi of aiding both.

Or there is the low-risk, low-cost Plan C, which is just ask publicly for the weapons purely for purposes of political grandstanding. He’s just raising the specter of a looming Russian attack so as to make a public rally around a president they might otherwise despise. Quote Giuletto Chiaso in Russia Today:

“The Georgian president continues to promise his citizens to take back South Ossetia and Abkhazia under the Georgian government. But he probably understands now that this promise can be honored neither by himself nor by his successors. For that reason, he is trying to frame the situation as if Russia were to plan anything on the ground which, in fact, is not occurring, because Russia has no need at all to change the situation that Saakashvili created himself through his aggression towards South Ossetia last August.”

Of course, the United States should dissuade Russia from starting any new rounds of violence. But the United States should also make sure it does not get itself entangled in any of Saakashvili’s political games.

If the Obama administration chooses to sell arms to Saakashvili, it had better first ask some hard questions about what they are for. And it had best lend genuine moral and—better still—material support to the peacekeeping mission on the Georgian border. Obama has repeatedly stated his support for the “territorial integrity of Georgia.” Fine and good. But may he also state his support for the right of Abkhazians, South Ossetians, and Russians to live peaceably and without needless fear of armed Georgian assaults.

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