Kremlin's Misplaced Rage is Bound to Backfire
The Kremlin pulls all the stops to show its displeasure at the Georgian attempts to replace Russian peacekeepers with international presence in South Ossetia. The disproportional character of the Russian reaction is bound to undermine the position of this country as a reliable and predictable member of the international community. It also seems a gross miscalculation on Moscow's part, that Georgian society would splinter in the face of open threats. The contrary is likely to be the case.
On February 15 the Georgian parliament voted to task the government with finding an international replacement to the Russian peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia. The decision was highly predictable as it was in the works since October 2005.
In responce of the resolution, the Kremlin launched what only can be called a full-scale diplomatic offensive against Georgia. Russia turned down a pre-planned meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) in Vienna on February 20-21 on the grounds that the meeting had to be held "closer to the area of conflict". Instead JCC meeting was held on February 20 in Moscow, without participation of the Georgian side and OSCE who were not properly forewarned. Following the meeting, Russian special envoy said OSCE has "excluded itself from the peace process at this current stage."
On February 21, Russia refused to receive Georgian Prime Minister in Moscow, cancelling, or as the Russian ambassador put it "postponing" his scheduled visit on February 26. The same day, Russia stopped issuing visas to Georgian citizens, officially in responce to the Georgian failure to issue visas to the Russian military.
To top off the diplomatic offensive, the reports broke that Russia's 58th Army has launched excercises including emergency transfer of heavy equipment to the Georgian border. This was preceded by the pledge of the Russian Defense Minister "not to leave our peacekeepers [in South Ossetia] in peril."
All of this pressure, despite its menacing character, is short-sighted and shows ill-will. Georgia has announced its intention to seek modification of the peacekeeping format long time ago. Moscow has failed to engage constructively in this process, preferring threats and intimidation. Parliament's February 15 resolution was decidedly toned down not to contain any time-bound references and leave the room open for negotiations. Georgian Foreign Minister has stated, that Georgia seeks transformation of the miltary peacekeeping operation into a police one, with Russian military possibly maintaining the role of the backup force. These opportunities were not taken in the Kremlin.
Instead, top leaders of the Russian parliament have intensified the calls for recognition of Georgia's secessionist enclaves, echoing the earlier statements of President Vladimir Putin, who did not rule this scenario out in case the Western countries recognize Kosovo.
In fact, Russia's fuming is only creating a smokescreen for the fact that Moscow has no long-term vision whatsoever for resolving the frozen conflicts in former CIS. The more muscular would Moscow's approach become, the easier it would be for the Georgian leaders to convince the international organizations to rebuke Russia and seek revision of the peacekeeping as a matter of urgency.
By the political overreaction on February 20-21 might go a long way in helping Georgia's cause. Earlier this month, the Western capitals were irritated by the Georgian president's reaction on the destruction of the gas pipelines and electricity transmission line in Russia, which cut Georgia off the vital supplies. Then, Saakashvili directly blamed Russia. The US and EU also considered Georgia reckless in its demands to substitute the Russian peacekeepers immediately.
However, slowly but surely, the Russian tackling of the gas crisis in Ukraine, followed by the energy blockade of Georgia, and now the political escalation start to form a pattern of muscular and irresponsible behavior in the minds of the Western capitals. And the response, if not the rebuke, is likely to follow.
Russia has a lot to lose this year. The chairmanship of G8 is not only a honor, but also a responsibility. If the gas row with Ukraine undermined Russian president's agenda of energy leadership, the showdown with Georgia might further tarnish the reputation of Russia as the power-broker and regional power.
The Brussels and Washington D.C. have their hands full with would the Iran nuclear crisis and Middle Eastern affairs. EU has the crucial talks on Kosovo close at heart. But the Georgian calls for restraining Russia are likely to fall on much more sympathetic ears.