AS THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE world's first vineyards, Georgia (the country, not the home of Michael Vick's unfortunate employer), might not seem the likeliest spot for a conflict that could derail critical U.S. foreign policy interests.

Yet trouble brews down Caucasus way. Russia has established governmental links with the country's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia: over 90 percent of Abkhazians now carry Russian passports, rather than those of the country whose international borders they reside within. Moscow increased the number of "peacekeepers" it maintains in Abkhazia by 27 percent to 2,452 soldiers. This deployment reportedly included as many as 400 paratroopers, a unit type not intended for defensive purposes. On May 15, the head of Russia's Air Force, Col.-Gen. Alexander Zelin, called for permanent Russian bases in Abkhazia.

Most worryingly, at least one Georgian UAV has gone down under fire over Abkhazia; Abkhazian officials claims to have destroyed as many as six. These Georgian UAVs, of the Israeli-made Hermes 450 variety, flew over the territory recognized internationally as Tbilisi's own; they did not engage in hostile activity.

A Russian MiG-29, not a mere shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, appears to have brought down the initial Georgian UAV on April 20. A video piped from the fallen aircraft shows the fiery launch of a missile from a warplane before the screen goes dark as the UAV explodes.

Through such actions, Russia hopes to make Abkhazia a de facto part of Russia and incite Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party faces voters on May 21, to take rash action.

If Georgia invaded Abkhazia, Russia could easily destabilize Tbilisi. Georgia maintains five brigades, numbering over 30,000 individuals, alongside a large number of lesser-trained reservists. Despite recent modernization inspired by U.S. and NATO advice, the Georgian military could not decisively win a conflict against an insurgent Abkhaz force that has been preparing to defend against invasion for years. Abkhazia might have a beach-studded coastal plain, but mountains make up the majority of its territory. Such rough terrain would let a Russian-supported Abkhaz force harass the Georgian military long enough to turn the fight into one without quick conclusion.

Russia does not need to win a war--it just needs to make Georgia appear unstable enough to dash any NATO accession hopes. Berlin, Rome, and other European capitals will not want to share the Article 5 common-defense-clause with a country on the brink or in the midst of war.

Instability in Georgia in the short-term and a non-NATO Georgia in the long-term would destroy Georgia's value as a strategic energy corridor, a democratic example, and a key U.S. military partner.

The only Central Asian oil not from Russia or Iran passes through Georgia via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline at a volume of up to 1 million barrels a day; conflict with Russia would lessen or eliminate this energy supply. A greater petroleum monopoly would further empower Moscow and Tehran. Conflict in the Caucasus would push up oil prices already nearing $125 a barrel, hurting American consumers anguished by nearly $4 a gallon gas.

Georgia represents the best hope for democratic aspirations in a region darkened by autocracy. While Saakashvili sometimes uses strong-arm tactics--his police forces temporarily shut down the opposition television station Imedi last fall--he acts more democratically than his neighbors. After a relatively clean election in March, Armenian authorities declared a 20-day state of emergency that banned any media from broadcasting political news and put the runner-up of the election under house arrest. Russia used its latest election merely to rubber-stamp a chosen successor: Dmitry Medvedev took up his role as president officially on May 7 primarily because of his loyalty to Putin. In Iran, an unelected body of clerics vets all candidates for president, banning politicians who do not toe the party line. Stable peace in the Caucasus will only come when more countries follow Georgia down the path to democracy, which will cause states to recognize their shared interests along the way.

Nearly 2,000 Georgians serve in Iraq along the Iranian border. The Georgians in Wasit province fill a critical role as Iran continues to support Special Groups and provide Iraqi insurgents with explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), which are smaller in number than improvised explosive devices (IEDs) but more deadly in execution. Georgia has sacrificed for America--it lost two soldiers at the beginning of this month. We owe Tbilisi our support.

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.

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