Why the Russia-Georgia Spat Could Become a U.S. Headache

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Russia has escalated its showdown with its small, NATO-inclined neighbor of Georgia by closing all transport and postal communications. No trains, no flights, no ships, no vehicles, no mail money orders — nothing can cross the border. This time, it's much worse than just another Russian spat with a former satellite state. The Georgia standoff may soon create a major headache for the Bush Administration, because of U.S. support for Georgia's right to align itself with the West.

Tuesday's announcement of the new measures came even after Georgia had handed over four Russian military intelligence officers accused of spying, and months of insults against Russia, threats to restore Georgia's sovereignty over its breakaway pro-Moscow provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and also assaults on Russian personnel serving in Georgia. Moscow insists that Russia is the injured party, forced to retaliate.

But the crisis, spurred by some emotional and erratic outbursts from Georgia, may actually suit Moscow's agenda, since the deeper issue driving the conflict is Georgia's geopolitical orientation: Georgia has joined the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that skirts Russia and ends its monopoly on transporting Caspian Sea oil to world markets; it has defied Moscow on a range of regional issues; and it is attempting to join NATO, presenting the Russian military brass with the prospect of a strategic rival strengthening its position along Russia's southern underbelly. In short, the crisis is an expression of Russia's failure to accept Georgia's independence.

To tighten the financial blockade, Russia's legislature on Wednesday will consider a bill banning all financial transfers to Georgia. Remittances sent home by some 1.2 million Georgians working in Russia currently amount to around $2 billion annually, around 20% of Georgia's GDP.

The Georgians certainly appeared intent on provoking the neighborhood hegemon last week when they made an ostentatious show of arresting the four Russian officers, threatening them with 20-year prison sentences and cordoning off Russian military headquarters in Tbilisi to demand the surrender of another Russian officer. Two groups of Russian servicemen were disarmed and beaten.

But Russia appeared more than ready for an escalation. Moscow recalled its ambassador, closed down its embassy and evacuated its personnel, and put its approximately 4,000 troops still in Georgia on high alert, ordering them to shoot to kill if they needed to defend themselves. "These people [Georgians] think that under the protection of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable and secure," intoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday in televised remarks. "Is it really so?"

Putin's jibe at the U.S. was transparent. And he stepped up his open support of the secessionist agenda of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which had broken away from Georgia with Russian encouragement in the early 1990s and are treated by Russia as if they had been annexed: he had their leaders formally invited to a major Russian economic conference held close to the Georgian border on Sunday.

Sensing the danger in provoking Russian ire, the Georgians quickly backpedaled: The four arrested Russian officers were handed over to European diplomats, and they arrived in Moscow on Monday night. But instead of reciprocating with calming measures, the Kremlin appears to have seized on the opening offered by Georgia to press home a point.

Relations between Russia and Georgia grew strained even in the Soviet Union's last years when the then-Soviet Republic elected an ardent nationalist as president. The rift intensified during the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the Russian military helped Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists. And relations have deteriorated to a breaking point since the current government of Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in a popular uprising two years ago.

Georgia will be unlikely ever to tempt the breakaway regions back into the fold unless Tbilisi make that choice look more attractive to the Ossetians and Abkhaz than alignment with Russia. Saakashvili's heavy hints that he might force the issue has allowed Moscow to accuse the Georgian leadership of threatening aggression. And it has certainly helped President Vladimir Putin rally the Russian public behind a nationalist cause. A poll taken by the Moscow-based Echo Moskvy radio station late last month found that 40% of its typically liberal audience believe that Russia's national interests justify any hard line on Georgia. Such jingoism could work as smartly for Putin's as yet unnamed heir-designate as the Chechen war worked for Putin back in 1999 — that's if Putin feels sufficiently emboldened to risk reiterating Moscow's neighborhood supremacy by challenging what he sees as a U.S. proxy on his own turf.

Given the U.S. commitment to Georgia, the standoff raises a dilemma for the Bush Administration: Unless both Putin and Saakashvili are restrained, the spat that began with the arrest of four Russian officers could degenerate quickly into a real disaster.