Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Case of the Murderous Missile

Let me start this post with a major caveat: I am NOT following very closely the breaking news reports about the Russian-made missile that landed in Georgian territory, especially as hard facts are coming in from the ground.

I am more concerned about the negative and troubling implications for the three main scenarios as to how this incident happened.

If we rule out that the missile launch and its subsequent impact in Georgia was some sort of accident, we have three main possibilities.

One possibility--and an explanation embraced by some circles in Russia--is that the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili manufactured this incident. I know that Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza has already, in the name of the U.S. government, rejected this possibility. I don't think it can be ruled out a priori, given that in other conflicts in the Balkans, in the greater Middle East, and throughout the "global Balkans" targeting one's own population has sometimes been used as a tool (and the U.S. in the past has accused some states in the region of doing this)--but I would argue that the bar for proof of this explanation would have to be set extremely high, and in the absence of any compelling evidence would have to be set aside.

Motive? Saakashvili, still under pressure at home to reunify the country, and beginning to face some criticism abroad for his super-presidential Putinesque style of governance, is given an incident that puts him squarely back on the side of the angels. Perhaps also a version of the strategy Chris Marsh (with M. Heppner) elaborated in their essay on the KLA's efforts to enlist NATO's help (cf. "When Weak Nations Use Strong States")

Another option: this was an operation conceived of and given the blessing of senior figures in the Kremlin--maybe not President Putin himself, but done in a Henry II style--"rid me of this troublesome priest". Motives? Continue to harass an uncooperative country, and more importantly, manufacture a crisis that could serve as the basis for extending President Putin's term in office, especially if the key stakeholders are unable to agree on a sucessor.

Again, to get conclusive proof would be difficult.

A 1a/2b option: collusion between some elements of the Georgian and Russian establishments? This really begins to enter into James Bond territory.

Finally, what appears to be the most likely--but no less troubling--local "frontier" elements working with South Ossetians. There is of course precedent in Russian history for commanders on the borders to act with no instructions (or in defiance of instructions) from the center, but this isn't 1783. So it raises one of my biggest fears (one I've discussed in other outlets as well)--that the resources and capabilities of the Russian state can still be privatized or used by people to further their own agendas and interests.

Nick, it may be an accident after all: This is what Reuters is saying:

A missile that landed in Georgia this week was ditched, not fired, by a Russian jet as it fled Georgian airspace, a source close to the Georgian investigation into the incident told Reuters on Wednesday.

The source said the pilot of the Russian aircraft jettisoned the missile after coming under fire from separatist forces on the ground in South Ossetia, a Moscow-backed breakaway region of Georgia, in an apparent mix up.

The missile landed without exploding in a farmer's field about 65 km (40 miles) west of the Georgian capital. Russia has denied any involvement but the incident has aggravated relations between the two neighbors that were already tense.

In Brussels, the European Union called on Russia and Georgia to show restraint.

"We have the first results of the investigation, according to which (South) Ossetian forces fired a Strela (portable anti-aircraft missile) at the fighter jet which had flown from Russia to Georgia," the Georgian official said.

"The pilot of the fighter jet decided to get rid of a guided missile he had on board," said the official, who did not want to be identified. "He did not shoot it but jettisoned it. That explains why the missile did not explode."
RIA Novosti is now quoting South Ossetian sources that it was a Georgian air force plane that fired the missile and that there are allegations that Ukrainian pilots are flying missions for the Georgians. The plot thickens! So now this is going to be a Yushchenko-Saakashvili affair?
Well, this is what VOA is saying now:

Georgia's Foreign Ministry says it has evidence that Russian jets entered Georgian airspace this week and carried out a missile attack on a village just outside the Russian-leaning breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Backing its claim, the ministry said Wednesday that radar records show Russian intrusion into Georgian airspace. Separately, Georgian television said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has confirmed the Russian intrusion.
How about two other possibilities:

1. Russian government tries to gauge the extent of support of Americans and Europeans for Georgian government in case of future more drastic actions against Saakashvili's government.

2. Stepping up the level of hostilities around South Ossetia to the threshold where the conflict can be still controlled, but, simultaneously, Saakashvili's government looks increasingly bellicose and as such, loses Western support for NATO, etc..

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