Tensions Over Georgia Sour Mood As U.S. and Russia Begin Nuke Talks

By Patrick Goodenough | May 19, 2009 | 4:52 AM EDT

A Georgian police officer stands guard outside parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia on Tuesday, May 12, 2009. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – On the eve of the first nuclear disarmament talks between the Obama administration and Moscow, renewed tensions over Georgia are souring the atmosphere and prompting warnings that Russia may be looking for a pretext for further military intervention in the strategically located south Caucasus.
Two days of meetings in Moscow, starting Tuesday, aim to advance plans to replace an expiring arms reduction treaty with a new one that significantly cuts the existing supply of nuclear warheads. The proposal is in line with President Obama’s stated desire to hit the “reset button” in bilateral relations, and he wants an outline to be ready by the time he visits Russia on July 8.
But differences over Georgia are – not for the first time – threaten the mood of optimism generated by Obama’s meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev early last month.
In Geneva on Monday, Russian delegates joined those from the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia in walking out of internationally hosted security talks between Russia and Georgia.
The U.S. State Department expressed dismay, calling the incident a concerted attempt to undermine the process.
The talks at the United Nations offices in the Swiss city are meant to build on a cease-fire deal brokered by the European Union last August to end the brief Russia-Georgia war.
Russia invaded its small neighbor in support of South Ossetian separatists after Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili – who is reviled by the Kremlin for wanting his country to join NATO – sent troops into the rebel region in a bid to restore government control.
The outcome of the fighting was Russian recognition of South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, as “independent” states.
Moscow said its aim was to ensure the two regions’ self-determination and protect Russian citizens, but critics view its actions as de facto annexation of sovereign Georgian territory – a view reinforced by the deployment since early this month of Russian guards along the “borders” between Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.
Apart from the leftist government in Nicaragua, no other country has followed Russia’s lead in recognizing the two territories as independent states.
While South Ossetian and Russian delegates walked out of Monday’s meeting in Geneva, their Abkhaz counterparts did not show up at all.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement the U.S. government regretted both the Russian and South Ossetian departure and the Abkhaz decision to boycott the talks.
He said the behavior contravened the spirit of the E.U. ceasefire agreement and a February 2009 Security Council resolution, both of which called for talks to contribute to security and stability in Georgia.
“The fact that the walkout occurred before any substantive discussions began clearly signals a coordinated effort to undermine the Geneva talks.”
The talks, jointly hosted by the U.N., E.U. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), are meant to reconvene on Tuesday, and Kelly said the U.S. hoped the Russian, South Ossetian and Abkhaz delegations would be present.
The exact reasons for the walkout were unclear.
Russian media quoted a South Ossetian delegate as saying it made no sense to hold the talks in the absence of the Abkhaz representatives.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow that Russia had decided to “pause” its participation because U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not produce a report on the situation in Abkhazia by the May 15 due date.
But a Georgian delegate told Reuters that the Russians had also cited NATO military exercises currently underway in Georgia as a reason. The Kremlin has reacted furiously to the May 6-June 1 maneuvers, and earlier called it an “overt provocation” and a ploy to rearm Georgia after last summer’s war. NATO officials disputed the charge, saying planning for the exercises had begun before the August conflict.
The overdue U.N. report has caused some friction.
Usually issued every three months, the report updates the Security Council on the situation in Georgia, where the U.N. Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) has been deployed since 1993, following earlier Georgia-Abkhazia fighting that erupted when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Russian peacekeepers have also been in Abkhazia over that period.
The U.N. reports have always been headed “on the situation in Abkhazia, Georgia,” but now that Moscow has recognized both separatist regions as independent, the Abkhaz authorities demanded that that wording not appear in future reports. Last week, the separatist government said it wanted to see Ban’s latest report before deciding whether to attend this week’s talks in Geneva. Because the report was not forthcoming, it stayed away.
‘Unfinished business’
The collapse of the Geneva talks comes in the wake of series of disputes between Russia and the West, including spying allegations that prompted NATO to expel two Russian diplomats, and Moscow to reciprocate.
Last week, Russia effectively blocked the extension of a 16-year-old OSCE monitoring mission in Georgia, by insisting that the proposal be worded in such a way as to recognize South Ossetia’s “independence.”  The State Department criticized Russia’s stance, and it reiterated Washington’s “unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders.”
The Georgian government, which has weathered weeks of opposition protests demanding Saakashvili’s ouster, earlier this month accused Moscow of encouraging a rebellion within the Georgian military, an allegation denied and ridiculed by Russia.
Georgia is strategically important to both Russia and the West because it lies on a key transit route for Caspian oil and gas supplies to the West. Russia has long enjoyed a virtual monopoly on regional energy export routes and has been accused of using its energy resources as a weapon of foreign policy.
Recently three former ambassadors to Georgia – two Americans and one former envoy for the E.U.’s executive Commission – issued a joint appeal for the West to employ “vigorous preventive diplomacy” to lessen the chances of another Russian intervention in Georgia.
In an op-ed, the three argued that Moscow likely sees “unfinished business” in Georgia, including the fact that Saakashvili remains in office.
They warned that Russian leaders, who feel they paid a small price for the August war, may think the U.S. and its allies are more concerned with priorities like the Afghan-Pakistan issue than with Georgia
One of the three, former European Commission ambassador Denis Corboy, told Radio Free Europe that with Russian troops now on the borders, it would be easy for a minor incident with Georgian soldiers to escalate, providing Russia with a “pretext” for new military action.
When Obama visits Russia in July, Corboy said, he should stress that further intervention in Georgia was a “red line” and that “crossing that red line would mean that the reset button could not continue.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow