Russia, Ignoring Obama, Continues Its Defiant Conduct in the Caucasus

By Patrick Goodenough | July 15, 2009 | 4:36 AM EDT

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looks through the scope of a sniper rifle during a visit to Russian forces near Novorossiisk on the Black Sea on Tuesday, July 14, 2009.(AP Photo/RIA-Novosti)

( – Just days after President Obama said in Moscow that “Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this week paid a provocative visit to one of two regions within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders. The Kremlin views the region as “independent.”
The visit to South Ossetia is the first by Russia’s president since Russian forces last August invaded its small neighbor in response to an ill-fated attempt by Georgian troops to regain control of the rebel region.
The brief war ended with both South Ossetia and another pro-Moscow breakaway region, Abkhazia, secured by Russian troops. Moscow subsequently recognized the two as independent.
“I want to thank you for inviting me to this new country, the new state of South Ossetia, which came into being as a result of difficult, traumatic events – a country which the Russian people supported in its hour of need,” Medvedev told reporters, standing alongside South Ossetia’s separatist leader Eduard Kokoity.
The visit pointedly included a trip to a Russian army base.
Moscow plans to establish long-term military bases in the two regions, a move critics say violates a European Union-brokered ceasefire agreement that ended the fighting. Under the ceasefire, Russia pledged to return its troop numbers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the levels they were at before the war broke out.
“I don’t think that it was any kind of step forward in terms of establishing stability in the region,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Tuesday of Medvedev’s visit to South Ossetia.
Some regional analysts have warned of the possibility of another war in the southern Caucasus, with July and August a particularly dangerous period.
Moscow reviles Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for his actions in South Ossetia last year and for his desire to take the former Soviet republic into NATO. Saakashvili’s political standing is shaky, and Russian media have been speculating that he may try to provoke Russia to divert attention from his domestic problems.
Saakashvili in a statement called Medvedev’s visit “shameful.”
From South Ossetia, Medvedev went to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, where he viewed war games and hinted that Russia was ready to use military force against Georgia again, if necessary.

Russian President Dimity Medvedev speaks with South Ossetia’s separatist leader Eduard Kokoity during a visit to a Russian military base in the breakaway region on Monday, July 13, 2009. (AP Photo/ RIA Novosti)

He told military officers that Russia had been “forced to give a tough and pretty effective response” to Georgia’s actions last year, and added, “I hope this lesson will be deeply ingrained in the memory of those now trying to reshape the current order, those trying to solve their personal problems by violence.”
“The current order” as viewed by the Kremlin is not something the U.S., the E.U. or the rest of the international community has embraced. Only one other country, Nicaragua, has followed Moscow’s lead in recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.
“I won’t pretend that the United States and Russia agree on every issue,” Obama said standing alongside Medvedev in Moscow on July 6.
“We had a frank discussion on … Georgia, and I reiterated my firm belief that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected,” he continued. “Yet even as we work through our disagreements on Georgia’s borders, we do agree that no one has an interest in renewed military conflict.”
After last summer’s war the Bush administration, saying there could no longer be “business as usual,” pushed to suspend ties with Moscow at various levels, including at NATO.
But the consequences for Russia were short lived, and less than a year later both NATO and the E.U. have resumed their cooperation with Russia.
Concerns about possible new conflict have been strengthened by Russia’s moves to exclude international monitors from its two client statelets.
At the end of last year, Russia effectively blocked the extension of a 16-year-old Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission in Georgia, by insisting that the extension proposal be worded in such a way as to recognize South Ossetia as independent.
The OSCE mission ceased operating in May, and a month later, Russia wielded its U.N. Security Council veto to shut down the remaining international presence – a U.N. military observation mission that has been deployed in Abkhazia since an earlier conflict in 1993.
The U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) had been due for a technical rollover of mandate, but Moscow refused to support the move, saying it was “built on old realities” and did not reflect its stance that Abkhazia was no longer part of Georgia.
It was only the fourth time since the turn of the century and the sixth time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union that Moscow has used the veto power it enjoys as a permanent member to kill a Security Council measure. U.S. envoy Rosemary DiCarlo decried the move, saying “it is the civilian population that suffers by facing a tenuous security environment without an international presence in Abkhazia, Georgia.”
The last of the now-defunct mission’s 130 military observers and 16 police officers will leave Abkhazia this week.
Vice President Joe Biden is due to visit Georgia and fellow NATO aspirant Ukraine next week, to “demonstrate U.S. support for continued democratic and economic reforms and discuss issues of mutual interest in both countries,” according to a statement from his office.
Amid the crisis last year, the then U.S. Senator, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic vice-presidential nominee urged President Bush to make it clear to Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “that they should expect practical and political consequences to flow from Russia’s actions.”
“He should insist that that Russia make good on its commitments to halt military actions, withdraw its forces from Georgia, respect Georgia`s territorial integrity and democratically-elected government, and accept international mediation to broker a peace agreement in South Ossetia,” Biden said in a statement on Aug. 13.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow