Up until last weekend, Washington and Moscow were fairly upbeat about the prospects of a summit meeting of American and Russian leaders going forward and smoothing down the discord over Georgia. But then came a flashpoint moment, when more than two weeks of discreet, measured steps towards this get-together broke down and made way for a grim, bare-knuckled power contest for Cold War points.
That moment occurred on Sunday, Aug. 24.
Before then, while still snapping at each other’s heels, both powers poured oil on the crisis in their own ways, fully expecting its resolution when President George W. Bush, president Dimitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin got together.
The dust of Georgian-Russian warfare began to settle as most of the 20,000 Russian troops pouring into Georgia after Tbilisi’s Aug. 7 push into South Ossetia withdrew. A few hundred remained to man the buffer zone, for which Moscow cited a clause about “special security arrangements” in the French-brokered ceasefire. On Aug. 20, Putin recalled the Moskva missile cruiser in mid-course to the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus to its beat on the Black Sea
Washington too waxed expansive: US ambassador to Moscow, John Beyrle, departing from the official line, told the Russian paper Kommersant Thursday, Aug. 21: “Now we [the US] see Russian forces’ first response in Georgia as legitimate after Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia came under attack.”
In the same accommodating vein, the US ambassador went on to say: “The fact that we were trying to convince the Georgian side not to take this step is clear evidence that we did not want all this to happen” he said, all but admitting for the first time that Georgia had been the aggressor.
Ambassador Beyrle added: “We have seen the destruction of civilian infrastructure, as well as calls by some Russian politicians to change the democratically-elected government of Georgia. That is why we believe that Russia has gone too far.”
Russian intelligence warns of US ulterior motives
The US signal was clear: If Moscow continued to pull its troops out of Georgia and did not threaten the country’s integrity and regime, Russian and US leaders could do business.
But then, Sunday, Aug. 24, the smiles abruptly vanished from the faces of the Russian officials working with American and Western counterparts. Surly Russian messages cancelled dates with US contacts.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow and intelligence sources pin down the moment of this tidal change to an intelligence briefing put before the top Kremlin leaders that day.
They were warned that the United States, under cover of a humanitarian sealift to Georgia, and NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor Anti-terrorism exercise on the Black Sea, was massing naval strength for a buffer between the Russian Fleet and Georgia’s western shore.
Their purpose was to break the naval blockade Russia had imposed on all of Georgia’s Black Sea ports but for Batumi, said the intelligence briefers.
The Russian intelligence report also disclosed that the USS Mount Whitney control and command vessel was on its way to the Black Sea. This vessel is equipped to direct sea, land and air combat operations.
The Russian chief of General Staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov and Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky warned Medvedev and Putin that the American warships sailing into the Black Sea had no plans to leave. After unloading their humanitarian cargoes, they would head out to mid-sea and deploy in mass formation to challenge the Russian Fleet’s sole domination.
They pointed out that the number of American Tomahawk missiles in the Black Sea would be doubled to 100.
After taking this information aboard, Medvedev resolved to suspend forthwith the discussions for setting up a summit meeting. Instead, the Russians began to systematically turn the screw, heaping one obstacle after another everywhere the Americans turned.
A rush of tit-for-tat provocations
That Sunday, a land mine exploded on a rail track west of the town of Gori and cut the rail link for carrying Azerbaijan fuel via Georgia to Europe. Tbilisi quickly blamed the Russians, pointing out that two trains had gone down the track earlier that morning and suffered no harm.
In Moscow, it was announced that Russia’s Mediterranean vessels would henceforth be subject to the Black Sea Fleet command.
The next day, Monday, Aug. 25, a rush of tit-for-tat provocations began and still persists. The Russian upper house of parliament unanimously called on the president to recognize the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Medvedev signed those decrees a few hours later, thereby hacking large chunks off Georgian territory.
From his ranch at Crawford, Texas, President Bush, who has said the enclaves are integral parts of sovereign Georgia, condemned the Russian step as exacerbating tensions and complicating negotiations.
The White House as well as the Kremlin had clearly laid the prospective summit to rest at this point.
When he signed the decrees, the Russian president said quite bluntly that he is not afraid of a new cold war. “We don’t need one,” he said, “but we’re not afraid of one.”
He also announced, in a conversation at Sochi with Russia’s envoy to the Atlantic Alliance, that he was weighing halting relations with NATO.
Such a decision would be difficult, he said but ties had “worsened sharply.”
In Washington, the White House hit back by announcing that Vice President Dick Cheney would visit Georgia, Ukraine and Italy from Sept 2.
Moscow jittery over Iwo Jima’s Middle East mission
Moscow’s next move was to announce that Russian forces controlling the Black Sea port of Poti would search all cargoes, the day before two more US warships were due to dock with aid deliveries for Georgia.
The American decision to transfer relief consignments to Georgia by warship faced a major dilemma – confront the Russians in Poti, or back down and deliver the aid at another port.
The next day, Tuesday, Aug. 26, the US embassy in Tbilisi said two warships would deliver aid to Georgia Wednesday through Poti.
Russian military and naval leaders informed the Kremlin that the USS Iwo Jima aircraft carrier and Expeditionary Strike Group with 6,000 sailors and marines aboard had set out from Norfolk for the Middle East. The US Navy’s newest transport and amphibian landing craft, the USS San Antonio, was bound for the Mediterranean, heading a group of six warships accompanied by the USS Hartford fast assault submarine.
Russian leaders decided that the Americans were putting in place an air shield for their Black Sea naval force and a relief contingent for their Sixth Fleet, which is on permanent duty in the Mediterranean.
The Russian president ratcheted up the tension by a warning of “military responses” to the US missile shield in Europe.
In Moscow, Capt. Igor Dygalo, deputy commander of the Russian Navy, announced that the Moskva missile cruiser would carry out a naval exercise on the Black Sea.
The Russians were clearly marking out their control of the water.
Moscow tells US, NATO to stop naval buildup
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that only on Wednesday, Aug. 27, did the voices of President Bush’s strategic advisers at the National Security Council finally prevail.
They warned that flexing military muscle against Russia only stoked the crisis and aggravated the standoff. They reported to the president that “Putin, Medvedev and their generals were resolved not to give an inch – but to go all the way.”
This limit was hard to predict, but some of White House advisers did not rule out a military outbreak that would trigger a full-blown confrontation between the two powers.
Most of those advisers agreed that having put their foot down on the Caucasian, the Russians would not back off until they had consolidated their domination of the Black Sea. This process might well draw Ukraine, Moldova and Ajara into the conflict.
(See the next article in this issue.)
Later Wednesday, when it was plain in Washington that Moscow was not about to give way, the White House ordered the Pentagon to redirect the Dallas Coast Guard cutter with 34 tons of humanitarian aid away from Russian-controlled Poti to Batumi to avoid a clash.
The decision came too late to cool the high tension between the two powers.
The Kremlin was encouraged to continue to play hardball by the appearance of muddled decision-making in Washington.
The minute the Dallas docked, three Russian missile boats, led by the Moskva missile cruiser, anchored at the Black Sea port of Sukhumi, capital of breakaway Abkhazia, to the north, for what the Russians called “peacekeeping operations.”
Moscow then brusquely informed the US and NATO that their presence in the Black Sea was unwelcome.
Suspension of military cooperation with NATO could extend to Afghanistan
“The heightened activity of NATO ships in the Black Sea perplexes us,” said Col. Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian General Staff and the vehicle for delivering Moscow’s harsh messages to the West.
“We are worried about aid, the way aid is delivered on warship. This is devilish. This aid could be bought at any flea market.”
Nogovitsyn went on to say that NATO had exhausted the number of forces it can deploy in the Black Sea under international agreements. He warned Western nations against sending more ships. “NATO – which is not a state located in the Black Sea” cannot continuously increase its forces and systems there, he said.
President Medvedev’s comment Monday, Aug. 25, that he was considering halting Russian military ties with NATO, has started rumblings as far afield as Afghanistan – especially after he cancelled a visit by the Western Alliance’s secretary general “until relations were clarified.”
At the NATO summit in Bucharest last April, Putin, then president, agreed to provide an alternative transit corridor for supplies to Afghanistan through Russian airspace and allow NATO members to maintain bases in the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This had become essential with the road between Kabul and the Pakistani border under constant attack from insurgents and terrorists on both sides of the border.
In Kabul, the Russian ambassador Zamir Kabulov said this week in answer to a question that he believed the deal was no longer valid because Russia had suspended military cooperation with NATO over its support for Georgia.
“If there is a suspension of military cooperation, this is military cooperation,” he said.
The chilly standoff which has settled over the Black Sea is clearly edging outside the Caucasus to other troubled areas.