What’s Going on in Abkhazia?

The Russians are meddling in Georgia, and America can’t do much about it.

Russian president-elect Dmitry Medvedev

Before it happened, nobody imagined that the Archduke Ferdinand’s murder in Sarajevo would set off World War I. Before the “shot heard round the world” was fired, I doubt 18th-century Concord, Mass., expected to go down in history as the place where the American revolution began. Before last weekend, when the Russian press 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 U.S. election 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 before, don’t worry. It’s a pretty safe bet that it’s probably not the priority of many people in the White House, and it hasn’t even been one of those “Who’s the president of Pakistan?” trick questions in the election campaign. On the contrary, Abkhazia ranks right up there with Nagorno-Karabakh, Dagestan, South Ossetia, and all the other forgotten Caucasian cities and statelets that no one wants to think too hard about 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, with ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia coming after that. There have been some U.N. attempts to make peace, and Georgia has tried offering Abkhazia wide autonomy, but Georgia and Abkhazia mostly maintain an uneasy stalemate, which occasionally turns into an extremely uneasy stalemate. Usually, this happens when an atmosphere of extreme uneasiness is useful to the Russians, who are the Abkhazians’ closest military, economic, and political allies and who have a long-term interest in the destabilization of pro-American, pro-Western, pro-NATO Georgia.

Thus, when the Russian press 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 “pre-emptive strike,” of course.

Why would they do that? Or even hint that they want to do that? Russian politics having now 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 in order to be able to strike quickly, had the recent NATO summit decided to offer Georgia a clear path to membership, which President Bush vocally supported. Others think recent Russian pronouncements, some of which come close to recognition of Abkhazian independence, are related to the inauguration of the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, this week. 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 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 are saying they have no intention of declaring war. But Georgia holds parliamentary elections later 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 really 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 now? Is anybody ready to debate a whole new part of the world? Last weekend, the American press focused unprecedented attention on … the Guam primary, in which 4,500 people voted and Barack Obama won by seven votes.

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