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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Caucasus Is Real Citadel of Russian Power

During the Cold War, the Black Sea was a dividing line between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. After the fall of Berlin Wall, the confrontation in the Black Sea disappeared. But the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia returned the Black Sea to the arena of naval contest. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, sent military ships into Georgian waters, and a number of Georgian naval ships were destroyed. Later, demonstrating clear support for Georgia, several U.S. warships rushed to the Georgian coast with humanitarian aid. Recent developments in the region show that a new escalation might follow very soon.

Last week, the de facto government of Abkhazia announced that it would destroy Georgian coast guard boats if they kept detaining commercial vessels destined for Sukhumi. It claims that Georgia has halted 23 ships in Black Sea waters off Abkhazia this year. The arrest of the Turkish cargo ship Buket on Aug. 15 was the culmination that triggered the strong Abkhaz statement on countermeasures.

Georgia insists all of the aforementioned ships entered the region illegally. According to the Law of Occupied Territories adopted by Georgia on Oct. 23, 2008, “waters in the Black Sea, territorial inland waters and sea waters of Georgia” are considered occupied. According to the United Nations, Abkhazia is an integral part of Georgian territory. It should therefore be clear to everyone that Georgia’s actions are completely legal. This should be particularly clear to Russia, which consistently claims its ardent adherence to UN principals and international law and on Tuesday threatened to seize Georgian ships that sail near Abkhazia.

However, what appears simple at first sight usually becomes more complicated later. At the end of last year, after recognizing Abkhazia as an independent state, Russia signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the breakaway territory. In April, the two signed the Agreement of Joint Protection of the Borders of Abkhazia. During a visit to Sukhumi in August this year, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised considerable assistance, including in the area of defense.  

Two recently adopted Russian documents clearly show that the Kremlin is ready to use military force again. One of them, named the Amendment to Federal Law on Defense, facilitates the use of Russian troops abroad. Following the same lines, the Agreement of Military Cooperation between Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia was signed just several days ago.

The questions then are: What do the sides hope to achieve? What might happen? Simply put, is there a possibility of new war between Russia and Georgia?

Russia has been in de facto control of Abkhazia since 1992. Russia’s positions are even stronger after its formal recognition of the region’s independence and provision of considerable political, economical and military assistance. The new military base in Abkhazia, which is to host 1,700 Russian troops, shows Russia’s determination to protect its interests in the region. For those who think this is a novelty in Russian foreign policy, I offer a quote from the book “Russia on Black Sea” written by a British traveler Henry Seymour in 1855: “The Caucasus that is the mountain range itself and the countries that lie at the foot of them to the north and south are the most convenient entrance to the heart of the great table-land of Asia which, once thoroughly subdued, might constitute an impregnable citadel where Russia would be established to extend her influence and dominion in every direction. The Caucasus is the real citadel of Russian power.”

Last year’s war is unfinished business for Russia because the Kremlin was not able to remove President Mikheil Saakashvili and thereby gain control over Georgia. In August 2008, Saakashvili gave the Russian leadership an excellent chance to demonstrate that it would stop at nothing to protect its interests in what it considers Russia’s zone of interest. In reality, the war was not only with Georgia — it also was a proxy war with the United States. Russia sent a clear signal that it believed that the United States had crossed the line in its support of Saakashvili and should back off.

Disconcertingly, a naval incident between Georgia and the Abkhaz authorities over the detention of a ship destined for Sukhumi would cause Russia to invoke existing treaties and agreements with Abkhazia to provide military assistance. As we know from the past, the help would be far from symbolic.

More important, a potential naval military incident would help Georgia get more international attention and support. Saakashvili has already achieved what he always wanted — the Abkhaz conflict turned into an international crisis.

It also is no small matter that Russia is scheduled to host the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, which is located about 150 kilometers from Abkhazia. The Kremlin wants to make sure that Georgia will not be in a position to sabotage the event.

A main goal of the Russian leadership is to portray Georgia as an unreliable and unpredictable country that is unready for any of the international clubs that it aspires to join, namely NATO and the European Union. It also wants to show other counties — namely Ukraine — that they should stay away from realizing the full potential of their sovereignty and their relationships with NATO and the United States. For all appearances, the Russian government’s goals are close to being achieved. Despite statements that NATO’s door is open to Georgia, there is only a small chance that it could happen any time soon … if ever.

The real problem is that the international community seems unaware of mechanisms to prevent a future military confrontation. However, history has many examples of how a naval incident becomes a major war. As recently as 1964, two U.S. destroyers were fired on by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. It is unclear whether hostile shots were actually fired, but the attack was taken as the perfect justification for escalating American involvement in the Vietnam War.

It is time to learn from history.

Sergei Konoplyov is director of the Harvard Black Sea Security Program and executive director of the U.S.-Russian Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.