A Warning Shot From Moscow?

Before it happened, nobody imagined that the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo would set off World War I. Before the “shot heard round the world” was fired, I doubt that 18th-century Concord expected to go down in history as the place where the American Revolution began. Before last weekend, when the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS declared that the government of Georgia was about to invade Abkhazia, nobody had really thought about Abkhazia at all. As a public service to readers who need a break from the American presidential campaign, this column is therefore devoted to considering the possibility that Abkhazia could become the starting point of a larger war.

If you haven’t heard of Abkhazia, don’t worry: It’s a pretty safe bet that it’s probably not the priority of many people in the White House, either, and it hasn’t even been one of those “can you name the general who’s in charge of Pakistan” trick questions in the campaign. On the contrary, Abkhazia ranks right up there with Nagorno-Karabakh, Dagestan, South Ossetia and all the other forgotten Caucasian regions, cities and statelets that no one wants to think about too hard but where, occasionally, something really awful happens.

For the record, Abkhazia is a province of Georgia that declared its independence in 1992. A small war followed, and ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia came after that. There have been some U.N. attempts to make peace, and Georgia has tried offering Abkhazia wide autonomy, but, mostly, Georgia and Abkhazia maintain an uneasy stalemate, which occasionally turns into an extremely uneasy stalemate. Usually this happens when an atmosphere of extreme uneasiness is useful to Russia, which is Abkhazia’s closest military, economic and political ally and has a long-term interest in the destabilization of pro-American, pro-Western, pro-NATO Georgia.

Thus, when the Russian news agency announces that Georgia is about to invade Abkhazia, it may mean that Georgia really is about to invade Abkhazia. But it might also mean, as everyone in the region understands, that Russia is about to invade Georgia — as a “preemptive strike,” of course.

Why would the Russians do that? Or even hint that they want to do that? Russian politics having become utterly opaque, it’s hard to say. Some think Russia began stirring up trouble in Abkhazia in recent weeks to exact revenge for NATO’s recognition of Kosovo — or perhaps to be able to strike quickly, had NATO decided at its recent summit to offer Georgia a clear path to membership, which President Bush vocally supported. Others think that recent Russian pronouncements, some of which come close to recognition of Abkhazian independence, are related to the inauguration this week of the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. Maybe Medvedev wants to demonstrate how tough he is, right at the beginning. Or maybe someone else wants to demonstrate how tough Medvedev is, on his behalf. In any case, someone, Abkhazian or Russian, has shot down at least two and maybe four unmanned Georgian military planes in the past six weeks in what looks like a pretty obvious attempt to create a casus belli.

It might not work — and for the moment the Georgians say they have no intention of declaring war. But Georgia holds parliamentary elections this month, under the leadership of a president who might be grateful for a chance to look bold. If the provocation works, or if Russia does invade Georgia — an emerging democracy, an aspiring NATO ally, a country with troops in Iraq and many implicit assurances of security from Washington and Brussels — then the West will have to come up with a major response, if not military then political and diplomatic.

The timing couldn’t be worse. There are many wonderful things about the American political system, but one of the least wonderful is the amount of energy a presidential campaign sucks out of public life. Between now and January, the current president is a lame duck: Could he make any credible response to a Russian invasion of Abkhazia, should such a thing happen? Is anybody ready to debate a whole new part of the world? Last weekend, the American media focused unprecedented attention on . . . the Guam primary, in which 4,500 people cast ballots and Barack Obama won by seven votes.

Of course, from another perspective, the timing couldn’t be better: If you wanted to attack an American ally, or if you just wanted to destabilize and unnerve an American ally, wouldn’t this be the perfect moment? Perhaps if the Russians don’t take the opportunity, someone else will.

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