Putin Has Georgia On His Mind

Russia appears to be on the verge of war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia after watching four of its citizens arrested on espionage allegations. Vladimir Putin put his forces in Georgia on high alert and instructed them to defend their bases, a major point of contention between the two nations. He also warned Georgia that it couldn’t count on American support if hostilities broke out:

Infuriated by the arrests of four Russian officers on spying charges, Moscow has put its troops in Georgia on high alert and ordered them to “shoot to kill” to defend their bases in the former Soviet republic.
In his first public comments on the escalating crisis, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, yesterday accused Georgia of “state terrorism” and compared the arrests to the repressions of Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria.
The commander of Russian military forces in Georgia, General Andrei Popov, said Russian law authorises the use of force to defend bases abroad from aggression. “We are ready to thwart any possible attempts to penetrate our facilities using all means, including shoot to kill,” he said. Mr Putin held an urgent meeting with armed forces chiefs, top ministers and the heads of intelligence services to discuss Russia’s response to the arrests.
“As a result of his meeting … the president termed the actions of Georgia’s leadership as an act of state terrorism with hostage taking,” the Kremlin said in a statement. Mr Putin said on national television that the arrests were “a sign of the political legacy of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria”. A Georgian – like Stalin – Beria ran the feared NKVD secret police that purged millions of Soviet citizens in the 1930s and 1940s. In a clear reference to US support for Georgia, Mr Putin also warned Georgia not to count on foreign backing in the crisis. “These people think that under the roof of their foreign sponsors they can feel comfortable … is it really so?” he said.

As often pointed out here, Putin has gone backwards on Russian reform, pushing towards a greater authoritarian role for the Russian government. He has also worked hard to increase Russian influence in the former republics, using charm and threats in equal balance to maintain power in the region. In Georgia, he has used both to maintain his military bases, a strategic necessity in the Caucasus where nationalist forces try to carve even more republics away from Russia.
Putin uses typically histrionic language, calling arrests “terrorism” and issuing “shoot to kill” orders. In truth, while no one knows for sure whether these suspects worked for Russian intelligence specifically, the notion that Russia actively spies on the West-leaning Georgian government is a very safe assumption. The hysterical nature of Putin’s reaction demonstrates that Georgian counterespionage forces must have gotten the right men.
Will Putin press this enough to start a war in the Caucasus? One would think not. The Russian military has enough troubles in the area without starting a border war with Georgia. While the US and the West back Putin against Islamists in Chechnya, we would immediately change our position with regards to Russia if they attack Georgia. This is why Putin has made this much of a fuss. Nothing they have done has turned Georgia back to the Moscow sphere of influence, and a threat of war is Putin’s last card.
The US needs to trump this card quickly. We cannot have Russia invading Georgia, or even think that it could do so, without serious consequences. The US needs to make clear to Putin that we will not stand idly by while Putin starts taking back the independent former republics by force. Whether that means military aid to Georgia or an effort to kick Russia out of the G-8 and economic marginalization should be options we keep open.