Georgia has released four Russian military officers seized on espionage charges but the move failed to ease tensions in the most serious row in years between Moscow and Tbilisi. Georgia’s government detained the four officers on September 27, claiming they were spies, and set up cordons around Russian military facilities in Tbilisi. “Enough is enough,” declared Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, calling on Russia to respect Georgia as an independent nation (ISN). Russia reacted with outrage, recalling its ambassador and cutting all rail, sea, air, road, and postal links with its neighbor. Russia was also considering a ban on money transfers to Georgia, among the numerous non-military measures it could use, according to RFE/RL.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday continued the sharp criticism of Saakashvili's actions, even calling into question the legitimacy of his government (RIA Novosti). Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone conversation with President Bush on Monday, warned against “any actions of third countries that Georgia’s leadership could interpret as encouraging its destructive policy” (RIA Novosti). U.S. and EU officials appealed for a lowering of tensions (Reuters). CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich says the crisis brings to the surface many long-standing antagonisms and could spill over into more serious confrontations.
Georgian media welcomed the seizures as an assertion of Georgian rights against what they see as increasingly heavy-handed Russian moves, while Russian newspapers focused on the hidden hand of the United States in enabling Georgia’s actions (BBC). Some experts say Georgia’s U.S.-educated Saakashvili was engaging in his usual bold gestures in the hopes of winning some diplomatic points (RFE/RL) as well as a boost for the governing party ahead of local elections. But the latest Georgian moves highlight deepening frustration with Tbilisi’s inability to resolve two so-called “frozen conflicts” over the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian forces were ousted from the two regions shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia is the main backer of both areas, and has granted Russian citizenship to South Ossetians and Abkhazians. At the same time, Russia has portrayed itself as an independent broker in both places, where it fields peacekeeping missions. Moscow has also formally approved a UN Security Council plan that foresees Abkhazia within Georgia and has publicly said it recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia.
Russia’s interest in maintaining influence in Georgia has intensified as the post-Rose Revolution government in Tbilisi has sought to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and intensify its integration with the West. Georgia has benefited from a warm relationship with the United States, which has offered military training, as well as significant economic aid. In what some see as Russian retaliation for this Western embrace, Moscow this year closed its lucrative markets to Georgian wines and mineral water over alleged safety concerns (RIA Novosti).
Bruce P. Jackson writes in Policy Review that Russia and the West are engaging in a “soft power” duel in Georgia and elsewhere in the region, “from economic and market influence, to democracy support and denial, to aggressive diplomacy—to create a region in their own image.” A CFR task force this year urges the Bush administration not to cede power to Russia in its “near abroad.” The paper called for respect of Russia’s legitimate interests but added, “There is nothing legitimate about limiting the opportunity of its neighbors to deepen their integration into the international economy, to choose security allies and partners, or to pursue democratic political transformation.”