The Blog

The Kremlin Went Down to Georgia

Our friends in the Caucasus need help.

12:00 AM, May 16, 2008 • By CHARLIE SZROM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza has already started down this path by singling out the Russian force in Abkhazia and stating that peacekeeping forces "do not issue military threats to parties to the conflict." The foreign ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Sweden visited Georgia on May 12 to assess the situation.

Yet words or delegations will not by themselves turn Moscow back from what it sees as a window of opportunity to dominate Georgia. The Kremlin does not chafe under the supposed insult of a free Kosovo, as some critics claim. It waited until April, not early February, when Kosovo broke from Serbia, to increase aggression in Georgia. Why the delay? NATO failed to offer Membership Action Plans (MAPs), avenues to eventual NATO membership, to Ukraine and Georgia at its early-April Bucharest summit, telling Moscow that the West will not stand up for its Black Sea allies.

How can we back Georgia without increasing tensions in the region?

We should push for joint military exercises between allies and Georgian forces and call for a Western European-based summit between Abkhazian and Georgian officials.

The exercises should take place in Georgia and another willing host, perhaps Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. The operations would primarily familiarize Georgians with NATO procedures, preparing them for eventual entry into the alliance. Secondarily, a pair of exercises inside and outside Georgia would reinforce the joint-defense principles of NATO.

In the short term, a small team could deploy immediately to calm tensions in Georgia and set the stage for the exercises. The presence of American and allied forces nearby would assuage Georgian security concerns and dampen Russian-Abkhazian aggression. International attention to the situation would bring greater accountability and reduce tensions.

The assessment team could bring a UAV to temporarily replace the downed Georgian vehicle(s). Given that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed high demand on the American UAV fleet, an ally such as Britain might be able to spare a UAV. Unarmed UAVs could ensure that Russia or Abkhazia (or Georgia) have not violated the obligations set forth by the 1993 Moscow ceasefire agreement over Abkhazia. The agreement forbids hostile military actions by the parties against each other. An unarmed UAV should not count as a hostile military action--the agreement says nothing about over flight restrictions. But a Russian peacekeeping force deployed with heavy weapons in an offensive formation should be considered as hostile.

Abkhazians or Russians would be less likely to fire upon a non-Georgian UAV or a Georgian UAV operated in coordination with non-Georgian forces. If a UAV could prove, via photographic evidence, that the Russian peacekeeping force has deployed in a non-peaceful manner, international opinion might pressure Russia to reduce its presence in Abkhazia. Moscow benefits from the international system through its UN veto and might back down from an aggressive posture if hard evidence emerged of its violation of international law.

While joint exercises would show Georgia and Russia the seriousness of the allied commitment to security in the Caucasus, a summit between Abkhazian and Georgian officials could soften European worries of an unstable Georgia, making the December meeting of NATO foreign ministers a more Georgia-friendly environment. We could encourage Germany to host the summit, in hopes that Berlin could witness the Georgians' commitment to peace firsthand. Excluding Russia and the United States from the summit would reduce tensions, lessen the reigning myth in Moscow of Tbilisi as an American puppet, and emphasize the importance of Georgian sovereignty.

Forty-eight years ago, Secretary of State Dean Acheson left Korea outside of his delineation of the U.S. sphere of influence. A bloody, costly, and still-simmering war resulted. We cannot allow the failure at Bucharest to lead to the same in Georgia. We must reduce the chance of broader conflict in the Caucasus.

Charlie Szrom is a research assistant in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.