TBILISI (Reuters) – Moscow’s sabre-rattling over two disputed regions of Georgia is driven by Kremlin hardliners who want to push Russia’s next president into an anti-Western stance, diplomats in both countries said.
Tension has risen sharply in the volatile South Caucasus since Russia forged closer links with the separatist governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, sent more peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia and threatened to use force if Georgia attacks.
Diplomats in Moscow and Tbilisi note the latest spats came during a political lull in Russia before the inauguration next week of Dmitry Medvedev as president.
They regard Medvedev, a lawyer with no links to the security services, as potentially a more Western-friendly leader than his predecessor Vladimir Putin but they say he would face strong resistance from hardliners if he attempted policy changes.
Medvedev has yet to give clear signals about the line he will take on Georgia but facts are already being created on the ground ahead of him taking power on May 7.
“Many independent analysts believe the military and the FSB (domestic intelligence service) are running Russia’s policy in the Caucasus right now,” one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The West has sided firmly with Georgia in the dispute, expressing concern about Moscow’s troop build-up and criticizing its decision to pursue closer ties with the separatists.
This suits the hardliners in Moscow, who distrust the West. They want to see a strong nationalist Russia re-asserting itself and winning respect through power, as in Soviet times.
Russia has started deploying 1,200 additional troops to Abkhazia, an impoverished coastal province which was once the playground of the Soviet elite.
It claims the right to add to an existing peace-keeping force there and says it needs to do so because Georgia is building up troops and planning an invasion.
Diplomats say the United Nations observer force stationed in the area has not detected any build-up of Georgian forces. They also say Moscow has been swapping out its army trucks in Abkhazia and replacing them with armored personnel carriers.
Georgia denies plans to invade Abkhazia and accuses Russia’s troops of becoming a party to the conflict rather than a neutral force.
Tbilisi has also been sharpening its rhetoric and accuses Russia of planning to annex Abkhazia and of violating its territorial integrity by sending in more troops without Georgia’s consent.
Putin, who is expected to preserve significant influence as Medvedev’s prime minister, says Russia has an obligation to protect the residents of the breakaway regions because most of them hold Russian passports.
He has also questioned why Abkhazia and South Ossetia are any less deserving of independence than the people of Kosovo.
Kremlin hawks are angry at the West’s decision to ignore Russia’s strong objections and recognize the independence of Kosovo. They also feel threatened by NATO’s long-term plans to admit former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia and do not want to see Medvedev pursuing a dovish stance once he takes power.
“There’s a particular group of people in Moscow who are angry at the way things are going and find it convenient to look for ways to push back against the West,” another diplomat said.
Few observers believe Russia has any serious appetite for war in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, nor any real wish to grant full recognition to their separatist administrations.
Either course would bring Moscow, which faces a range of separatist challenges within its own borders, far more headaches than benefits.
Despite occasional bellicose statements, diplomats say Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili knows any attempt to take back the two regions by force would destroy his hopes of joining NATO and pursuing closer links with the West.
But in an unstable region with hot-tempered leaders, a history of recent conflict and fickle public opinion, provocations by either Moscow or Tbilisi are akin to playing with fire close to an ammunition dump.
“The real risk is not that either side deliberately starts a war,” one Moscow-based ambassador said. “It’s that a miscalculation or mistake by one side ignites a conflict that quickly spirals out of control. That’s what scares us.”