The Kremlin seems to be trying a new approach to obstructing its neighbor's path to NATO membership.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked the West last month when he told reporters that he had approved Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia two years before it took place. He also revealed that Russia had trained and armed secessionist paramilitaries in South Ossetia. Russia's "peacekeepers," in other words, were promoting violence rather than preventing it.
This is not just an issue for the history books. The situation in the Caucasus remains fraught, and Western leaders need to make sure they do not again misread Russia's intentions.
Mr. Putin's revelation proves that Russia violated international law. Significantly, it also explains the violence in Georgia emanating from South Ossetia during the two years before the war, and the destruction and ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages both before and during the conflict. The orders descended the chain of command from the top of Russia's military.
In 2008, the invasion was halted by a six-point ceasefire agreement negotiated by Nicolas Sarkozy, then France's president, on behalf of the EU. The agreement called for a separation of forces: Russia would withdraw to its prewar positions across the border, and Georgia to its military bases. EU observers would monitor it all.
But Russia never complied with the agreement. It seems obvious now that it never had any intention to do so.Today, more than 10,000 Russian troops remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Moscow blocks monitoring missions from the U.N. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russian forces in the occupied territories are equipped with weaponry put into place after the ceasefire agreement: SS-21 tactical missiles, S300 anti-aircraft missiles, tanks and Smerch rocket launchers. Russia's FSB security forces guard the occupation lines and block EU monitors from entering both regions.
In Tallinn—and hopefully in Brussels, Paris and Washington as well—we are trying to understand what Russia expects to gain by occupying Georgian territory. Does the Kremlin believe that a country is excluded from NATO membership just because a fifth of its territory is occupied? Did Russian officials not hear when on two recent occasions, most recently at May's NATO Summit in Chicago, that Georgia was assured of admission into NATO?
Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
As a NATO member, Estonia plays a role in Georgia's adoption of and progress toward NATO standards. Pressure from Russia has only reinforced Georgia's desire to join NATO, and it has reminded the West that stability in the southern Caucasus depends on democratic governance and maintaining a country's right to choose its own alliances. In both of these categories, Georgia leads the way.
Yet Russia has not given up its ambitions to obstruct its neighbor's path to NATO membership. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's former president, said last November that his country will tell NATO aspirants "to behave themselves." He added that, if Russia "had hesitated in 2008, the geopolitical alignment would be different today, with many states having been artificially dragged into NATO."
Such comments, taken with Mr. Putin's revelation last month and Russia's growing military might on Georgian territory, would be worrying enough on their own. But we also could be seeing a new approach by Mr. Putin to destabilize Georgia: via its domestic politics.
These efforts appear to center around opposition figure Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who made his fortune in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia. In April, Mr. Ivanishvili established Georgian Dream, a coalition of opposition groups running in the Oct. 1 parliamentary election, and began to drum up ethno-nationalistic, fundamentalist-Orthodox rhetoric.
Groups financed by Mr. Ivanishvili have been linked to rising violence, not improved political debate. Georgian Dream has refused to endorse the same code of conduct that other political parties have accepted, and last month was fined for alleged campaign-finance violations. Writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, Mr. Ivanishvili dismissed the "claim that our new style is part of a Russian plot" to unsettle Georgia, insisting instead that "the pot is already boiling."
He says Georgia Dream is determined to regain Georgian territory from Russia, though in the Journal op-ed he also stressed his belief that "No sustainable future can be built by projecting our own military power against Russia or anywhere else." That's in line with the coalition's promises not to "rush into" NATO. Lobbyists financed by Mr. Ivanishvili are also at work in Brussels and Washington, accusing Georgia's current government of being dictatorial, repressive and antidemocratic, and arguing that it is not ready for a seat at the Western table.
It is hard not to see this as a second phase of Russian designs against Georgia. Another warning sign: Russia's 2008 invasion was preceded by the Kavkaz 2008 war games in the north Caucasus. The Kavkaz 2012 war games—in which land and air forces, border guards and the Black Sea Fleet are participating—are scheduled for Sep. 17-23, the week before Georgia's elections.
Polls show that two-thirds of Georgian voters believe Georgia is on the right track, and 55% intend to vote for the governing party. A vast majority support Georgia's NATO aspirations. Opinion polls also show widespread doubt about Mr. Ivanishvili's message. Since victory at the ballot box is out of reach, Georgia Dream has laid the groundwork to reject the election results—by rejecting the code of conduct that would force them to accept the results if international monitors deem them credible. This can only provoke more conflict, mere days after a large military deployment just over Georgia's borders.
The West didn't anticipate Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia, despite warnings months in advance from Georgians about the regional buildup of forces. Georgia only survived with gutsy self-defense that gave agile Western diplomacy time to succeed.
Georgia is again appealing to the world—this time by inviting international scrutiny of its democratic process and elections. Hopefully the West is wise enough to see the games underway to tarnish Georgia's image and muddy its domestic waters.
Mr. Reinsalu is defense minister of Estonia.
Source: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL 10 Sept.2012