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Year later, Russia win over Georgia cuts both ways

After its swift military victory over Georgia, the Kremlin seemed poised for greater influence in nearby states, but they have been bucking an economically weaker Moscow whose intentions worry them.

August 07, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — Last August, fresh off a swift, decisive military victory over U.S.-backed Georgia, the Kremlin basked in newfound international power and domestic prestige: Oil was booming. Anti-Western taunts and propaganda crammed state media. A dramatic message about resurgent Russian strength had been unequivocally delivered.

One year later, the euphoria has evaporated. The war is still discussed in tones of righteousness, but the military victory left Russia isolated, made formerly compliant neighbors reluctant to do Moscow's bidding, and sparked a foreign capital flight that dovetailed with the global financial crisis.

Most crushing, the war has done serious damage to what is plainly Russia's top foreign policy priority: the reestablishment of what the president has called a "privileged" sphere of influence in former Soviet states.

Today is the first anniversary of the war's outbreak, when an overwhelming wave of Russian tanks and warplanes crossed the border and roared to within 30 miles of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The exact circumstances of the war's onset remain in dispute, but the most commonly held version of events is that Georgia launched a military operation to reassert control over the rebel province of South Ossetia, and Russia invaded, fighting on the side of the separatists.

Threats and accusations of renewed fighting are flying thick and ominously this week, and there is concern that new battles could erupt.

Some analysts say Russia's postwar isolation is fueling instability. In Moscow, they say, there is a lingering discomfort over the war's failure to unseat Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is openly loathed by Russian leaders.

"Many in Moscow believe this is the result of indecisiveness, that we should have marched all the way to Tbilisi and finished the job," said Pavel Felgengauer, a Moscow-based military analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. "There's a strong opinion here that a serious mistake was made and that the answer is regime change. The situation is very dangerous."

In Georgia, the U.S.-backed leadership has been left to grapple with the painful reality of lost lands and shattered military infrastructure. Political instability intensified this year as massive demonstrations demanded Saakashvili's resignation, pointing to the war as evidence of his insufficiency.

But if Russia's plan was to show its might, to strike a crushing blow that would frighten former Soviet countries into greater compliance, it backfired. The sight of Russian tanks crossing into a neighboring country stirred dark memories of the Soviet past, and, analysts say, shifted the psychology in the region.

Instead of being intimidated into submission, the neighboring states have become defiant and have begun to buck Moscow. Resistance has been bolstered by the global financial crisis and tumbling oil prices, which abruptly dried up Moscow's cash flow.

Signs of Moscow's waning regional influence are coming at a furious pace.

In July, five leaders of neighboring countries -- nearly half the invited luminaries -- failed to show up at horse races hosted by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Moscow hippodrome. The races are seen as an unofficial summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the regional confederation of post-Soviet countries. A year ago, many analysts agree, such a snub would have been unimaginable.

Kremlin efforts to create a "rapid reaction force" among former Soviet countries to counter North Atlantic Treaty Organization military strength have also met with surprisingly stiff opposition. Both Belarus and Uzbekistan have refused to sign the agreements needed to create the force. This week, Uzbekistan warned that a planned Russian base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan would destabilize Central Asia.

Armenia, once Russia's most stalwart ally in the Caucasus, has also been distancing itself. This summer, to the intense irritation of Moscow, Saakashvili was presented with Armenia's Medal of Honor during a visit to Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

Even impoverished Tajikistan is striving quietly for independence, preparing to ban the use of the Russian language in government offices and documents.

But nothing has so starkly crystallized Russia's isolation as the question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both breakaway republics inside Georgia's internationally recognized borders. Russia had been building ties with the two republics for years, including passing out Russian passports to residents and taking on payment of pensions.

After the war, Moscow quickly recognized them as independent states and dispatched heavy deployments of Russian troops to defend them -- presumably from Georgia's central government.

Yet not even Belarus, a country whose policy has closely twinned that of Russia, was willing to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In fact, only Nicaragua joined Russia in acknowledging their independence.

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