The temperature in the multiple disputes between Russia and Georgia has been rising for some time. In the past two weeks, though, it has approached boiling point. The flare-up centres on the region of Abkhazia, which is populated mainly by Abkhaz and ethnic Russians. Like South Ossetia, Abkhazia is part of Georgia, but exists in a unilaterally declared state of independence.
Russia has now upped the ante, announcing that it intends to increase the troop contingent it keeps in Abkhazia under a 15-year-old agreement. It said the move was a response to Abkhaz fears that Georgia planned to reintegrate the region by force.
Two events precipitated the latest crisis. Ten days ago Georgia blamed Russia for shooting down an unmanned spy-plane over Abkhazia. Russia said it came down under Abkhaz anti-aircraft fire. A few days before, President Putin had said that Russia would forge closer ties with the two breakaway regions, without specifying what that might mean. Georgia complained to the UN.
Russia was angered by the fiercely pro-Western stance taken by Georgia after the "rose" revolution of 2003, which compounded the blow it had already received from Ukraine's "orange" revolution. Mr Putin and his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili, have never got along. Two years ago Russia imposed a trade embargo on its chief export, Georgian wine; there have also been interruptions of power supplies from Russia, with a key gas pipeline and generating station sabotaged.
This year tensions have worsened. Russia's diplomatic defeat over independence for Kosovo left Moscow sore, and asking why, if Kosovo could gain international recognition as an independent state, the same could not apply to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia, fearing just this, declined to join the European consensus on Kosovo.
This may be part of the genesis of the present fracas. Loss of empire is another. In smaller, weaker Georgia, Russia has no compunction about playing the colonial bully. Moscow also knows – because the Europeans recently blocked the fast-tracking of Georgia and Ukraine to Nato membership – that the West feels no duty to rush to its aid.
There have been armed skirmishes between Georgia and its breakaway regions in the past. Mercifully, they have remained skirmishes. And so far the latest stand-off has remained in the realm of rhetoric. But these are perilous times. Russia's new President is inaugurated next week. The temptation for the Kremlin to thrash out at such a time could be great. We join the EU in calling for moderation, and caution, on both sides.Reuse content