Georgia Set the Perfect Trap

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This week will mark the first 100 days of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, and foreign policy is unlikely to be counted as one of his major successes during this period.

Apart from an ill-prepared initiative of an all-European security treaty that didn't go very far, he now has a war on his hands -- one that he did not choose and one that can now spin out of his control.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is testing the resolve of Russia's new leader, who has been drawn into a complicated conflict that could easily distract him from his modernizing agenda.

After several weeks of building tensions in South Ossetia, Saakashvili initiated a full-scale military attack on the breakaway republic. By Friday afternoon, after heavy shelling, Georgian forces captured most of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. Georgian forces also appear to have attacked and killed at least 10 Russian peacekeepers.

Saakashvili's bet -- perhaps with tacit U.S. encouragement -- might have been to reclaim South Ossetia by force, if Russia did not get involved militarily. Another strategy may have been to provoke Moscow to respond militarily and then retreat under Russian fire, claiming an act of aggression against Georgia. In either case, it seems that Saakashvili's intention was to bolster his domestic support by appearing strong and standing up to the Russian bear, while making a serious move to restore Georgia's sovereignty over South Ossetia. He achieved most of his objectives. It was a win-win for Saakashvili and a perfect trap for Medvedev.

Moscow had no other choice than to respond firmly to Tbilisi's military incursion into South Ossetia. The alternative of allowing Saakashvili to destroy South Ossetia's autonomy and get away with killing Russian soldiers would have been humiliating for the Kremlin.

Medvedev did not have any good options. Allowing Saakashvili to claim victory would have destroyed Medvedev's credibility at home. On the other hand, repelling Georgia's attack using tanks and air attacks would expose Russia to international criticism as an aggressor, and it would make international investors flee the Russian market.

Medvedev chose to roll back Saakashvili. He made a calculated decision that now was not the time to appear as a weak and indecisive leader, which would have done more damage to Russia and his modernization agenda than the short-lived difficulties and complications that Moscow may incur in its relations with the United States and its European allies.

Moscow sent several infantry and tank battalions of the 58th Army into South Ossetia, which in a matter of hours rolled back most of the gains made by Georgian forces. Russian combat planes also attacked military airfields and other military targets in Georgia. Based on the speed with which Russian forces were able to enter South Ossetia, it is clear that Moscow had already taken preventative steps by concentrating troops and armor near the border.

Saakashvili misjudged Medvedev's resolve to respond with overwhelming military force. But he may have won the propaganda battle by making Russia appear as the aggressor. Most of the international media portray Russia's response as an unprovoked attack against Georgia, while completely ignoring Saakashvili's concerted efforts in the past two weeks to provoke military tensions in the region, including the killing of Russian peacekeepers by Georgian forces.

It is not clear how the conflict will develop. Georgia has a clear interest in portraying this as a Russian invasion of a sovereign county, and Tbilisi may continue to engage in military skirmishes with Russian forces. The West will insist on the complete Russian pullout. Abkhazia may try to take advantage of the conflict while Georgia is entangled in a fight with Russia.

Russia could pull out from South Ossetia if an agreement to restore the status quo is reached. On the other hand, it can increase its military presence in the breakaway republic to deter Georgia from attacking it again, in which case this could be called annexation.

The war could have been prevented. Russia could have forced a settlement by pushing South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity to negotiate a broad autonomy within Georgia. But, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested on Saturday at a news conference in North Ossetia, that option is now closed: "It is hard to imagine how South Ossetia can ever be persuaded to reintegrate with Georgia after this," Putin said.

I'm afraid Russia might end up owning the place without the legal title to it.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and PR company.