In an editorial today, the New York Times criticizes Russia for being “petty” in using its veto in the security council to end the U.N. observer mission in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. Russia’s interest, in the opinion of the Times, is to calm separatist ambitions in the Caucasus, not stir them up. The Times believes that Russia can be a “player” on issues like terrorism, North Korea, Iran, climate change, and other important matters. But when it behaves like this, it “only diminishes its credibility.”
President Obama undoubtedly reads the Times but, as he prepares for his trip to Moscow, one can only hope that he doesn’t linger over the editorials. In fact, there is a reason for the Russians to end the observer mission in Abkhazia and it is far from “petty.” The force, created in 1993 to oversee a ceasefire between Georgia and the Abkhaz separatists, consists of 131 military observers and 20 policemen and is capable of monitoring troop movements. Once it is gone, the international community will be effectively blinded amid ominous signs that Russia is planning a new invasion of Georgia.
On June 29, Russia will begin massive military exercises, code named “Kavkaz-2009,” in the North Caucasus. These will involve 8,500 soldiers, 200 tanks, 450 armored combat vehicle, and 250 guns and last until July 6. The exercises “Kavkaz-2008” which officially involved 8,000 soldiers but according to Pavel Felgenhauer of the Jamestown Foundation, many more, were immediately followed by the Russian invasion of Georgia.
In the wake of last summer’s invasion of Georgia, Russia proclaimed the independence of the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which, besides Nicaragua, no country other than Russia has recognized. At the same time, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power and Georgia still aspires to join NATO. More important, Georgia remains a supply corridor to the West for energy from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. To change this situation, Georgia is going to have to be occupied, a step that Russia is likely to take in the absence of the strongest possible Western deterrence regardless of its effect on Russia’s “credibility.”
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State.