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These Unpredictable Russians

Surprise military escapade in Kodori reinforces doubts in Russia’s political reliability

An episode with sudden re-deployment of the Russian troops (CIS peacekeepers) to the Kodori gorge of breakaway Abkhazia stirred discussion and controversy in Georgia. The aims and motivation of this adventurous military move are unclear, and experts remain ambiguous about the means and measures that may help Georgia to avoid similar incidents in the future.

On April 12, Russian peacekeepers were unexpectedly re-deployed to the Kodori gorge, the only place in breakaway Abkhazia which is still controlled by the central government of Georgia. According to the official Russian explanation, relocation of troops was deemed necessary to re-establish peacekeepers’ checkpoint in the gorge and to monitor implementation of April 2 protocol, according to which Georgia should have withdrawn it Defense Ministry troops from Kodori till April 10.  

However, Georgian authorities say re-deployment of 80 heavily armed paratroopers on helicopters and with gunship helicopter backup did not look as a peacekeeping exercise at all. Especially as neither the Georgian government, nor the UN Observers Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) were notified.

UN Observers share Georgian concerns. “CIS peacekeepers decided to undertake the establishment of this check point in an aggressive and combative manner, which is against the norms of peacekeeping. We are deeply concerned about the effect of such operation on the UN led Peace Process, and opposed to the manner in which this action has been conducted,” official statement of UNOMIG says.

Although the Russian troops were withdrawn, the morale and determination of the Russian politicians is far from broken. Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov consistently states that “Russian peacekeepers will continue to patrol the upper and lower parts of the Kodori gorge at least once a week.” Some say it is just face-saving exercise, others, like some Georgian MPs claim that the incident would have its continuation.

According to the most popular view, Russians intended to stir the situation in the gorge. Kodori has long been at the center of Abkhaz-Georgian disagreements. It is also a main obstacle to launching the consultations on a peaceful political settlement draft prepared by the UN.

Russian officials are well-aware that the local population in Kodori, under permanent threat from the Abkhaz militias is armed; some Defense Ministry troops and the Border Guards are deployed there. Recent tensions only heightened pressure on these militaries. It was plain to see that Russian peacekeepers’ unexpected appearance would inevitably confuse both locals in Kodori and the Georgian central authorities. Russian troops’ appearance out of the thin air could have been easily taken for the Abkhaz offensive and there was a high probability that someone would open fire.

Revaz Adamia, former chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Security says “it seems that Maj.-Gen. Evteev [Commander of the CIS peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia] anticipated a clash and bloodshed [in Kodori]. If it happened, any further actions and re-deployments of the Russian troops would have been justified.”

The question is why anyone would want to do that. Some say, the Russian generals acted on their own initiative. Initial confusion in top Russian officials’ statements seems to support this claim.

Russian Parliament delegation headed by the chairman of committee on CIS Boris Pastukhov arrived in Tbilisi right before the Kodori incident to discuss the details of the Russian-Georgian framework agreement. Pastukhov was apparently taken aback by the news and said “peacekeepers made a huge mistake.” On this particular occasion they also framed Mr. Pastukhov – his diplomatic mission ended crashing and burning as the talks were cancelled by the Georgian Foreign Ministry.

But some of the Georgian observers tend to disagree Russian military could have acted so freely. “I do not believe that the decision was made at the level of a certain major or the colonel”, says Revaz Adamia. According to him, Russian Defense Minister’s rhetoric proves that the ministry was aware of the details of the operation and attempted to justify them. 

Georgian analysts also say that references to “independent actions” of the Russian militaries are a myth. David Darchiashvili, director of the Georgian Center for Civil-Military Relations says a history of the Russian military system is that of blind loyalty towards civilian rulers, of the dependence on and oppression by the political circles. “Russian officers have grown up in this system. I doubt that they could take such adventurous steps,” says Darchiashvili.

It is widely believed in Georgian political circles that Russians deliberately performed military operation before arrival of the American military to Georgia to test the commitment of the international community and the US reactions, or to hinder deployment.

Although the timing seems to be questionable – it would have been much more logical to undertake such operation in February, when the announcement on US involvement was just made. On the other hand, before the instructors are actually in Georgia and the assistance program is in full swing, this timing can be as good as any to discredit the Georgian state.

Fourth and most realistic reason may be the poor coordination of the Russian decision-makers, competition among different governmental agencies, ignorance of each other’s position and sometimes – plainly shortsighted policy. If this is true, than we can argue that Russian bureaucratic machinery did not change much since Boris Yeltsin’s departure.

Supporting this claim is the fast withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers after the issue reached the presidential level. The volume of ammunition and foodstuffs the Russian soldiers brought to Kodori showed plainly that they definitely intended to stay longer.

If the action was planned better, and coordination among government agencies was ensured it is hard to imagine that the Russian delegation in Tbilisi would have been left in such confusion.  Media policy could also have been more streamlined. The Russian official media policy on crisis recovered only by the end of the events, and Russia’s international reputation was quite damaged by strict UN Security Council statements.

Did Putin know? This is one of the questions that are frequently heard. If he did, then there is some political hypocrisy and unprofessional conduct of the operation involved. If he did not, than both Georgia and the international community cannot rest assured, that the Kremlin is firmly in control. In both cases, Russia reinforces its image of unreliable and unpredictable partner.

It is possible to conclude that all the possible scenarios are not mutually exclusive, but can be viewed as complementary. Today the major concern of the Georgian government is to avoid such incidents in the future.

According to David Darchiashvili, in order to minimize such possibility Georgian position should be as explicit and principled as possible, to avoid double interpretations by any party. Revaz Adamia also agrees Georgia should take tougher stance, but he says there are no firm guarantees that similar events won’t recur “for it is a truism that stupidity has no boundaries,” says Adamia.

As the incident with Russian troops seems to be de-escalating, the analysts fear that there are too many uncut threads in this story to suggest that the troop withdrawal was a final scene. Almost 9 years after the end of war in Abkhazia both sides look into nearest future with great unease and anxiety.

by Revaz Bakhtadze, Civil Georgia


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