The FINANCIAL — According to STRATFOR, the Russians still have not completed withdrawal from Georgia. It is clear that, at least for the time being, the Russians intend to use the clause in the cease-fire agreement that allows them unspecified rights to protect their security to maintain troops in some parts of Georgia.
Moscow obviously wants to demonstrate to the Georgians that Russia moves at its own discretion, not at the West’s. A train carrying fuel was blown up outside of Gori, with the Georgians claiming that the Russians have
planted mines. Whether the claim is true or not, the Russians are trying to send a simple message: We are your best friends and worst enemies. The emphasis for the moment is on the latter.
It is essential for the Russians to demonstrate that they are not intimidated by the West in any way. The audience for this is the other former Soviet republics, but also the Georgian public. It is becoming clear that the Russians are intent on seeing Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili removed from office. Moscow is betting that as the crisis dies down and Russian troops remain in Georgia, the Georgians will develop a feeling of isolation and turn on Saakashvili for leading them into a disaster. If that doesn’t work, and he remains president, then the Russians have forward positions in Georgia. Either way, full withdrawal does not make sense for them, when the only force against them is Western public opinion. That alone will make the Russians more intractable.
It is interesting, therefore, that a U.S. warship delivered humanitarian supplies to the Georgians. The ship did not use the port of Poti, which the Russians have effectively blocked, but Batumi, to the south. That the ship was a destroyer is important. It demonstrates that the Americans have a force available that is inherently superior to anything the Russians have: the U.S. Navy. A Navy deployment in the Black Sea could well be an effective counter, threatening Russian sea lanes.
While it was a warship, however, it was only a destroyer – so it is a gesture, but not a threat. But there are rumors of other warships readying to transit into the Black Sea. This raises an important issue: Turkey.
Turkey borders Georgia but has very carefully stayed out of the conflict. Any ships that pass through Turkish straits do so under Turkish supervision guided by the Montreux Convention, an old agreement restricting the movement of warships through the straits – which the Russians in particular have ignored in moving ships into the Mediterranean. But the United States has a particular problem in moving through the Bosporus. Whatever the Convention says or precedent is, the United States can’t afford to alienate Turkey – not if there is a crisis
in the Caucasus.
Each potential American move has a complication attached. However, at this moment, the decision as to what to do is in the hands of the United States. The strategic question is whether it has the appetite for a naval deployment in the Black Sea at this historical moment. After that is answered, Washington needs to address the Turkish position. And after a U.S. squadron deploys in the Black Sea, the question will be what Russia, a land power, will do in response. The Europeans are irrelevant to the equation, even if they do hold a summit as the French want. They can do nothing unless the United States decides to act, and they can’t stop the United States if it does decide to go.
The focus now is on the Americans. They can let the Russo-Georgian war slide into history and deal with Russia later on, or they can act. What Washington will decide to do is the question the arrival of the U.S.S. McFaul in Georgia posed for the Russians.
Reprinted with permission of STRATFOR