Russia announced March 20 that it plans to send more peacekeepers to the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and it could decide to recognize the regions' independence. The moves come a day after U.S. President George W. Bush announced the United States' support for Georgia's membership in NATO. Russia's decisions on Georgia could set up heated conflicts not only between Moscow and Tbilisi, but also between Moscow and Washington.
FREE PODCASTMEMBERS-ONLY PODCAST The day after U.S. President George W. Bush announced Washington's overwhelming support for the former Soviet state of Georgia to join NATO, Russia has already launched a response. During a March 19 meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, Bush announced that the United States will push for Georgia to begin the NATO Membership Action Plan — the first step to join the alliance — at the April 2 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania. The announcement goes directly against Russia's desire to keep NATO and the West out of its periphery while it works to consolidate control over the former Soviet states. Russia wanted to make a deal on the issue March 17, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with their Russian counterparts Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Moscow proposed that if the United States backed away from proposed NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, Russia would stop causing instability in Ukraine's transit of natural gas to Europe and also in Serbia and the newly independent Kosovo. But no deal seems to have been reached, since Bush's announcement came just two days after the United States and Russia discussed the topic. Now Moscow has two very volatile potential responses on the table: moving troops and possibly recognizing Georgia's secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These actions not only could completely destabilize Georgia, but also could also spark a war between the small Caucasian country and its large neighbor. First, Russia's State Duma on March 20 laid the groundwork to increase the number of Russian peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and along the Georgian-Russian border. Russia already has troops in the area, with logistical links to forces already in country. Russian troops in the Northern Caucasus normally patrol the Islamist secessionist regions of Ingushetia and Chechnya. However, Russia has reined in the Islamist militant movements in the Russian parts of the Caucasus during the past year, though those troops remain in the region. Technically, it would be relatively easy to move those troops either to the border with Georgia or into one of the two secessionist regions where Russian peacekeepers already are stationed. Russia's second move is the possible recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. STRATFOR sources say the Russian Duma is to present its recommendation to the executive branch on March 21 to recognize the republics. Russian President Vladimir Putin would still have to give the green light, but the Duma's backing alone gives the threat a strong foundation. Moscow has held the regional independence card for some time now, because Georgia has said that recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia would amount to a declaration of war. This and the announcement of possible Russian troop movements, along with the West's desire to keep Georgia stable, are all puzzle pieces that, when fitted together, could create not only a major confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi, but also between Moscow and Washington.