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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Smell of War at Breakfast

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Will Russia launch a war against Georgia? That is the most important question that should have been decided during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Moscow — or, to be more precise, during Obama’s breakfast meeting on Tuesday with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Everything else was of secondary importance. Compared with the Russia-Georgia conflict, what difference does it make what kind of agreement they reach to reduce strategic nuclear arms? After all, Russia and the United States will never use these weapons against each other anyway.

The pleasantries shared between President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama during their news conference and photo ops were just as meaningless. In the end, Medvedev and Putin will always support regimes that are antagonistic to Washington for one simple reason: to increase international tensions, drive up oil prices and give the Kremlin another chance to bask in its inflated self-image as a global energy superpower.

It was very important that Obama’s visit coincided with Russia’s large-scale military exercises “Caucasus 2009,” which were most likely held in preparation for a new war in the region. And whether or not Russia’s troops will be given the green light does not depend on military considerations, but on whether Putin, after meeting with Obama, believes that he can start a war without incurring repercussions from the West.

“Caucasus 2009” is strikingly similar to the Russian exercises that preceded the August 2008 war with Georgia. The smell of war is once again in the air. Counterterrorism operations have been instituted in the Prielbrusiye region on the Russian-Georgian border, many people have been evacuated from the region and Russia has beefed up its forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Like deja vu, the Kremlin is again accusing Georgia of aggression, and yet it is Moscow that has insisted that all observers from the United Nations and Europe leave the region to remove unnecessary witnesses to Russia’s planned aggression. It would be difficult to label these moves as simply blackmail. Russia is mobilizing for war.

The Kremlin’s foreign policy is driven by one basic principle: It will pursue an aggressive, hostile policy as long as it believes it can get away with it.

The Russian-Georgian war last year was a perfect example. When Georgian forces occupied Tskhinvali, Putin, who always operated on the assumption that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was a puppet of former U.S. President George W. Bush, met with Bush in Beijing while they were attending the Olympic Games there. Bush, who apparently knew nothing about the events in Georgia, muttered something to the effect of “Nobody wants a war.” Putin interpreted these words to mean that Bush was rescinding U.S. support for Georgia. But after French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Georgia, this was enough to convince Putin to stop the army’s advance, even though Russian troops had already reached the outskirts of Tbilisi.

The Kremlin’s behavior is driven by both rational and irrational motives. An irrational motive is Putin’s stated desire to hang Saakashvili by the balls. A rational motive is the desire to convince the world that Saakashvili has already hanged himself by the balls.

The outcome of the last Russian-Georgian war was determined when Putin met one-on-one with Bush in Beijing. Similarly, whether or not there will be another Caucasus war will depend on what Putin reads in Obama’s eyes during this summit.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.