In news given very little media attention, Russia has again tried to destabilize the pro-American, former Soviet republic of Georgia. Motivated by their success in ripping Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia with little penalty, the Russians are now being accused of orchestrating an anti-government coup. As Russia becomes more aggressive, the West must be prepared for Russia to take similar measures against nearby pro-U.S. countries like the Ukraine.
On Mat 5, the Georgian government responded to a coup at Mukhrovani base near Tblisi by dispatching tanks, firing the commanders and ordering the soldiers to remain in their barracks. The government stated “They [those involved in the coup] were receiving money from Russia” and “it seems it was coordinated with Russia.” The crisis ended when the commander of the base was arrested after the rebelling unit was surrounded.
One of those arrested was a former Georgian special forces major who testified to the Russian role. On a tape broadcasted on Georgian television, he said the Russian-sponsored plan involved the assassination of six top advisors to President Saakashvili and a march towards Tblisi with the rebelling soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government. An additional 5,000 Russian soldiers would then intervene.
The revolting soldiers were reacting in opposition to NATO exercises planned to be held on Georgian territory which Russia staunchly opposed. The coup came less than a week after President Medvedev warned Georgia against holding the exercises, saying “I want to specifically stress that responsibility for possible negative consequences of these decisions will fully rest on the shoulders of those who made them and carry them out.” The Russian envoy further warned that the exercises would “significantly affect the stability of the entire South Caucasus.”
It is also worth mentioning that the coup came after an April 21 report that Russia had broken the ceasefire with Georgia and moved its forces within 25 miles of Tblisi. The coup came as intense protests calling for the resignation of President Saakhashvili raged, indicating that the Russians were hoping that the coup would spark a popular uprising. Regime change in Georgia has been a thinly veiled objective of the Russians, as Medvedev claimed that Saakashvili was no longer the leader of the republic in the wake of the war in 2008.
The words of a Russian lieutenant stationed in South Ossetia provide a glimpse into Russia’s intentions. “It will be Russia,” he told the Associated Press, referring to South Ossetia. “And Georgia used to be Russian, too.”
To better understand Russia’s strategy and the tactics that will be used in the future, it is useful to review how Russia essentially annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia.
Due to discontent in South Ossetia, the Georgian military attacked the capital of the province in an attempt to bring stability to that part of its country. After the offensive began, Russia intervened, claiming it was protecting the Russian minority living there who desired to separate from Georgia and that they were responding to attacks on their peacekeepers. Key to this strategy was Russia’s granting of citizenship to residents in South Ossetia that speak Russian by giving them passports. As a Russian embassy official explained, “If an individual has a passport of Russia…For us, he is a citizen of Russia.”
Intercepted phone calls provided by the Georgians show that a Russian armored regiment entered South Ossetia almost a full day before the Georgian offensive on the province began. And less than a month before the war began, Russia held a massive military exercise in the Caucasus involving the 58th Army which was later used to invade Georgia. Ralph Peters observed that the quick insertion of the brigade into Georgia “could never have shot out of its motor pool on short notice. The Russians obviously ‘task-organized’ the force in advance to make sure it would have working tanks with competent crews.”
After the war began, the Russian government announced that South Ossetia would become part of “one, unified Russian state.” The Russians expanded the war in Georgia to Abkhazia, which they also occupied, and plan to build three bases in the two conquered territories. Although Russia today recognizes the two provinces as “independent” countries, the ongoing military presence clearly puts them under Russian control.
The Russian strategy of stirring up internal conflicts in its neighbors’ lands and then intervening to protect a Russian minority was largely successful in Georgia, and the West should not have been surprised to see it used with this latest coup. The West should also expect to see it used in the future, and there are some disturbing signs that the Ukraine may be the next victim.
Russia is fiercely opposed to potential Ukrainian membership in NATO, and they have had major disputes over natural gas shipments. Russia is demanding the lease of the Sevastopol military base be renewed and has accused the Ukraine of giving Georgia weapons during the war and even sending them reinforcements. In a move eerily reminiscent of what happened in Georgia, the Russians have been distributing passports to residents in Crimea, the location of the naval base in the Ukraine that Russia wants to hold onto.
If it is true that Russia was behind this latest coup in Georgia, then Russia is not satisfied with just taking two of the countries’ provinces. The Russians have larger, more dangerous objectives. And given the West’s response and their strategy’s past success, we must expect Russia to come to the defense of its Russian “citizens” in neighboring countries again, and expect additional discontent and instability in the region that benefits Russia’s desire for dominance.