Is Putin setting the stage for war?
The Chechen Islamist Doku Umarov has claimed responsibility for the March 29 subway bombings in Moscow that killed at least 40 people. Putin and the Russian government have vowed to hunt down those responsible for the attacks. The target of the beating of the war drums isn’t only Chechen Islamists, though. For months, Russian officials have been blaming Georgia for terrorist violence on their soil, setting the stage to remove the Saakashvili government and control Georgia.
In 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia under the pretext of protecting the Russian minority in the country from the aggressive Georgian military. The Russian forces took control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia using this excuse, and the two republics have since declared “independence” while remaining under Russian control. Since then, Russia has continually expressed opposition to the government of Mikheil Saakashvili and his removal is a clear goal.
When a Russian lieutenant stationed in South Ossetia was interviewed by The Associated Press, he said “It will be Russia. And Georgia used to be Russian, too.” As territory that was part of the Soviet Union, regaining control over Georgia is a goal of Putin, who has called the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
In May 2009, the Russians engineered a coup at a military base near Tblisi aimed at overthrowing Saakashvili. It failed, and a former Georgian special forces operative involved in the operation confessed that Russia was behind the coup. He said that top officials would be assassinated and the soldiers at the base would march towards the capital, at which point 5,000 Russian soldiers would come and help them. The Georgian government claimed that the plotters were financed by Russia.
The coup came less than a week after President Medvedev ferociously expressed his opposition to NATO exercises being held in Georgia, saying “I want to specifically stress that responsibility for possible negative consequences of these decisions will fully rest on the shoulders of those who made them and carry them out.”
Since the failed coup, Russia has been hard at work making the case that the Georgian government is aggressive, untrustworthy, and responsible for attacks on its soil. The bombings in Moscow might be just what they needed to finish off Saakashvili. There is no evidence yet that the Russian government was involved in these latest attacks, but questions still remain about the 1999 apartment bombings that provoked the Second Chechen War. I was told by a friend with wide-ranging contacts in the intelligence community last fall that some were expecting Russia to invade Georgia in the spring.
Nikolai Patrushev, the current secretary of Russia’s National Security Council and the former head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, is already pointing the finger at Georgia for the Moscow bombings.
“We have had information that individual members of Georgian special forces support contacts with terrorist organizations in the Russian North Caucasus. We must check this also in relation to the acts of terror in Moscow,” Patrushev said. He described Saakashvili as “unpredictable” and “it cannot be ruled out that he may start [another war] again.”
These accusations are just the latest in Russia’s attempts to make the case that Georgia is essentially waging war on them through terrorist proxies. On October 13, 2009, the chief of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, said that Georgian intelligence maintains contact with Al-Qaeda and helped train and transport terrorists to Chechnya.
“They perpetually undertake to deliver weapons, explosives and financing for subversive acts on high security sites in Dagestan—first and foremost on oil and gas pipelines,” he said.
This statement was closely followed by a warning from the chief of Russia’s GRU military-intelligence, Aleksandr Shlyakhturov, that the Saakashvili government is “unpredictable” and could launch an attack on South Ossetia.
Shortly before the Moscow bombings, Russia’s rhetoric about Georgia’s alleged involvement in terrorism was making headlines. The Russian Deputy Interior Minister claimed in mid-January that recent violence in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia was the result of Georgian involvement. “At military bases in Georgia, terrorist groups are trained by foreign instructors to carry out attacks in Russia,” he said.
The Russian government has long been making the argument that the Georgian government is akin to the Taliban post-9/11, knowingly harboring and assisting terrorists and a threat that must be removed. Russia may move militarily, possibly via proxies like in the last coup attempt, against Saakashvili as part of their attempt to restore the days of power under the Soviet Union. It is also possible that Russia is planning to use Georgia as a chip on the negotiating table. They may try to win a commitment from the U.S. not to become involved in helping Georgia region in return for supporting sanctions on Iran.
It is unclear what Russia’s grand strategy is, but it is clear that Putin and Medvedev want Saakashvili removed and Georgia under their control. For them, the Moscow bombings may be just what they’ve been waiting for.