WASHINGTON – As the world focuses on the imminent Russian annexation of Ukraine’s predominantly ethnic-Russian-populated Crimean Peninsula, Moscow has flexed its military muscle with jet fighter and helicopter flights over Georgia, a country with which Russia went to war in 2008.
The outcome of the five-day war resulted in Georgia’s two breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia ultimately being annexed by Russia and declared by Moscow to be independent countries. The two provinces still have a major concentration of Russian troops, tanks and ground-to air missiles.
Moscow’s show of force over Georgia is to deflate any notion it still has of joining the West’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO has had an eastward policy that Russian President Vladimir Putin finds particularly threatening to Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Informed sources say the flyovers also were meant to display displeasure with Georgia’s recent position on events in Ukraine.
On March 6, the Georgian parliament condemned Russia’s effort to annex the Crimean Peninsula.
As Moscow seeks not only to warn Ukraine against joining NATO and to set up a buffer against such an encroachment up to the Russian border, Putin appears to be taking the same tack toward Georgia.
The former Soviet republic is located in the Caucasus bordering southern Russia and separated by the North Caucasus Mountains.
The recent military overflights violated the terms of an Aug. 12, 2008, agreement reached by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who today is Russia’s prime minister.
To underscore Moscow’s displeasure with Georgia, a meeting planned between Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin and a representative of Georgian prime minister for normalization of relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, was postponed. There’s no indication when there will be another meeting.
The two were to get together to discuss trade and economic relations, a meeting which has been postponed twice since the crisis over the Crimean Peninsula began.
While Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili complained about the overflights as a “provocation,” there’s nothing concrete that Tbilisi can do about it.
Georgia’s prime minister, Irakly Garibashvili, has advised the European Union countries of the developments and still intends to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, despite a possible threat of Russian economic sanctions.
Like Ukraine, Georgia also cannot rely on any military assistance either from the EU or the U.S. to discourage Moscow from taking any potential action.
It certainly didn’t in 2008 when the U.S. and Georgia had completed a joint military exercise just prior to Russia’s invasion. In fact, Moscow had captured a considerable amount of U.S. military equipment at Georgia’s deep water port in Poti on the Black Sea. The U.S. Marines still want their captured Humvees back.
Sources say that the Russian military has gone so far as to warn that it could move troops it has stationed in the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia’s territory.
In a gesture of bravado, however, Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Alasania said the Georgian armed forces “are prepared for any development of the situation.”
Moscow’s five-day wrap-up of the 2008 war proved otherwise and, since that time, it has beefed up its rapid-reaction special forces based on lessons from that war.
Nevertheless, Tbilisi intends to pursue joining NATO with the hope that Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, will give Georgia a Membership Action Plan, a step before formally inviting the country to join NATO.
Analysts, however, see Georgia receiving MAP as unrealistic, and there is Western opposition to the prospect, particularly from France and Germany.
While there is speculation that the Crimean experience could prompt the leadership in Paris and Berlin to change its position on Georgian membership in NATO, sources say Tbilisi can expect even further Russian pressure as it pursues its Western orientation.