Ex-Ambassador Says “Evidence Mounting” Of New Russian Offensive In Georgia
In a recent opinion piece in “The New York Times,” three former diplomats called on the United States to lead efforts to prevent a “new tragedy” in Georgia. Citing Moscow’s military buildup in the country and its resentment over the “unfinished business” of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the authors — former U.S. Ambassadors to Georgia William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz, and Denis Corboy, the former European Commission ambassador to Georgia — argue that the West must step in to prevent a fresh escalation of violence. Corboy was recently in Tbilisi, where he spoke to RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili.
RFE/RL: What inspired you and your two fellow former ambassadors to write the opinion piece for “The New York Times”?
Denis Corboy: What we felt, from putting everything together, were indications that Russia could be preparing for another conflict when it suits their agenda — but probably in the latter part of the summer this year. We hope we’re wrong, but we were so alarmed at the evidence that we decided to try to write a message. This concern, by the way, has even heightened since we wrote this piece.
RFE/RL: Why do you think it is heightened?
Corboy: The evidence is mounting. You’re aware, of course, of the Russian army being on the border of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But if you look at the hardware they have, it’s not border-keeping hardware, it’s more war hardware. If we look at the deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, we see types of equipment there which we find strange.
Then put all this together with the rhetoric — starting off with the gross exaggeration of the danger to Russia caused by the Partnership for Peace NATO exercise [currently under way in Georgia], which is an annual event which Russia knows very well doesn’t pose any danger. Then there is the rather new, negative attitude toward the Eastern Partnership, which as you know is a voluntary arrangement with the European Union which concerns matters like visas, trade, and improving the lives of people.
It’s an alarming situation, and what we felt was that the international community might not be fully aware of how dangerous it could be. And if you look at the internal Georgian situation, and the domestic crisis here, the people within Georgia don’t seem to be aware that what Georgia could be facing — and looks to us as if it is facing — is the most serious crisis since independence in 1991.
RFE/RL: What is Russia’s aim in Georgia? Does it simply want to maintain its sphere of influence?
Corboy: We feel that there is a Russian objective — and a very important one — to gain control over energy from the Caspian on both sides of the sea. They also want to have a political veto on the politics, particularly foreign policy, of the countries of the South Caucasus.
Our feeling is that when [U.S. President] Barack Obama works on the “reset” button, particularly at the July 6-8 meeting in Moscow, a red line needs to be drawn for our Russian friends with regard to manipulating the situation in Georgia in a way that would lead to another conflict.
This is obviously not as important as issues like Pakistan and Afghanistan, getting nuclear disarmament talks going, Iran, the Middle East, Korea. All these things are very important. But we should not allow Russia to trade these things against regaining control over its own back garden here. And that is why we’re sounding the alarm.
RFE/RL: You mentioned a red line. What would happen to Russia if that line is crossed? What is the West capable of?
Corboy: Russia would have to be made aware, absolutely clearly, that crossing that red line would mean that the reset button could not continue. It’s a very difficult thing to elevate the Georgian situation to that degree.
If Russia decides it can risk another adventure here this summer, there would of course be outrage in the international community, there would be enormous protests, and all that. But Russia must realize in advance that they would pay a higher price than what they had to pay for last August’s tragic events in South Ossetia.
RFE/RL: You think that the price was not high enough after the August events.
Corboy: Let’s not go into the origin of the August events, because I see it as a train crash happening in slow motion. Everybody knew that Russia was preparing something, and we knew that there were difficulties for the Georgian villagers, and so forth. Remember that it was part of the Russian strategy, going right back to 2006, to proceed toward this, and this was the opportunity that they got.
It will now take very little for Russia to find a similar pretext, with their troops on the border, with minor incidents [with Georgians soldiers] happening virtually every day. It’s very easy now that the incidents will not be with the Abkhaz or the South Ossetians — they will be with Russian troops, and it’s very easy for that to escalate. Ideally, they would like to be able to blame Georgia for bringing them into another conflict.
So we are raising the alarm to remind policymakers, particularly in Washington, that this is a very important part of the reset button. A hallmark of both American and European policy since the end of the Soviet Union has been to protect and give security to the independent countries that are now in existence. We’re committed to keeping them independent, and to protecting their independence. If possible, we must find a way to give Georgia more security.
RFE/RL: Why do you think the Russian threat is not appreciated in Georgia? Do you believe it’s tied to the current standoff between the government and the opposition?
Corboy: I find it very sad, but I think people are in denial that this danger exist. If we are correct about our assessment of the danger in Georgia — and a lot of people agree with the assessment — then there should be no space for the domestic turmoil here. We should be having national solutions, and the people should be thinking first of the country, not their party, or their particular ambitions.
Because when we look at the alternatives to the present regime — whatever you say about it — what is the alternative? This is not realistic politics, to say that you will not talk to the elected president of the country until he resigns, and not telling the people what government you would put in place. That is not democratic politics.
What worries us all is the tradition that Georgia has, that for the first two presidents they have had since independence, they have changed them through the streets. And we hope that that will not try to happen again.
RFE/RL: What potential do you see for political change in Georgia?
Corboy: The most important thing is to initiate, as rapidly as possible, the reforms that everybody accepts have to be carried out. Then there should be parliamentary elections, and then maybe you could persuade the president in two years’ time to hold a referendum on the question of the presidency. But you must return to constitutional government. And the most important part of that constitutional government, to my mind, are the reforms.
It has to begin with a dialogue, but it has to move very quickly from a dialogue to action.
If everybody would appreciate the danger the country is really in…those of us in the commentariat out there aren’t making this up. The future of the Georgian state is in grave danger. And they have to wake up to that fact and, appropriately, think of the country.
That’s my feeling. I’m sorry, I feel strongly about it. But I think the theater in the streets is not helping the international community to focus on Georgia as I think it must.
RFE/RL, 18 May 2009
A Russia test
Denis Corboy, William Courtney, and Kenneth Yalowitz
The New York Times, 6 May 2009
Reports of military mutinies and Russian plots in Georgia, while still unclear, have heightened tensions which were already building this spring. The U.S. should lead preventive diplomacy now, underscoring to Russia the high costs of intervention in Georgia while seeking to engage Moscow in a broad security dialogue.
The West’s stake in Georgia is high. The United States and the European Union have made support for the independence of former Soviet states a hallmark of their foreign policies. In January, Washington elevated Georgian independence to a “vital” interest.
Already before the latest developments, the E.U. mission monitoring the cease-fire between Russia and Georgia registered extra Russian forces at the boundary between Georgian-controlled territory and the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Reports of gunfire across the cease-fire lines have increased. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is undertaking a large exercise, including amphibious ships of the kind already on patrol off the Abkhazia coast.
The Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, has asked NATO to cancel a long-planned NATO “Partnership for Peace” exercise scheduled for this week in Georgia. And in Luxembourg recently, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, expressed misgivings about the E.U. Eastern Partnership, which he characterized as “meddling in the region.” After Presidents Obama and Medvedev met on April 1, a senior U.S. official said they had “real disagreements” about Georgia.
Russian leaders probably see a good deal of unfinished business in Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in power. Georgia continues to seek membership in NATO and control over the export of Caspian oil and gas through Georgia still eludes Moscow.
Russian leaders might think the U.S. and its allies have higher priorities than Georgia, what with the economic crisis and NATO’s problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Moreover, Russian leaders think they got away with a slight price for the August war — a short delay in their dialogue with the E.U. and NATO and some capital flight. Moscow may also misjudge ongoing political demonstrations in Georgia as a sign of weakened national resolve.
In fact, bitterness about the occupation of Georgia’s territory is the most unifying factor in its politics. And the costs to Russia of intervention in Georgia would be high. With an economy in free fall, Russia would lose access to needed international capital. The West would impose financial, technology and political sanctions. Western participation in the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi would be unthinkable.
Russia might also overestimate its leverage with the West. It sees Europe as dependent on Russian energy, and the West needs Russia’s help help on Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. Important as these interests are, an intervention in Georgia would create a political firestorm in the West with pressure for sanctions.
What is urgently required is exactly what did not happen prior to the August war — vigorous preventive diplomacy.
The U.S. must signal to Moscow that steps to take over Georgia, including any plotting to overthrow Saakashvili, would kill any “restart” of relations. At the NATO-Russia Council meeting scheduled for this month in Brussels, and at the Obama-Medvedev summit set for July in Moscow, U.S. and NATO leaders should make clear the likely costs of any aggression. At the same time, they should offer to engage Moscow in a broad security dialogue on regional security, NATO and the OSCE in which mutual interests and intentions could be clarified and potential disputes averted.
Preventive diplomacy with Georgia is also important. The U.S. and Europe should firmly warn Tbilisi against overreacting to Russian provocations. Last summer’s foolhardy actions caused Tbilisi to squander international support. The West should also intensify efforts to foster political dialogue between Saakashvili and the opposition. In the long term, the development of Georgia as a stable and prosperous democracy is its best guarantee of security.
A year ago, Russian-Georgian tensions resulted in war. The signs now are not yet clear. What we do know, however, is that Georgia is weak and a real risk exists that Russia could again overreach. America and Europe ought to do all they can to lessen the chances of a new tragedy.
Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.