W e remember the autumn of last year mainly because of the domestic political developments of that time: the aggressive election campaign and the extremely polarized society, followed by the results of the election and the transfer of power – all of which consumed our attention back then. But the decisive processes for Georgia underway at that time were not limited to domestic politics alone.
Iran and the Russian "Corridor to Armenia"
On 19 August 2013, a former adviser to the Israeli government on national security issues, Giora Eiland, said that in the autumn of 2012, during the US presidential campaign, Israel was going to launch a military strike on Iran. According to Eiland, this plan did not materialize because of the categorical opposition of US President Barack Obama. Indeed, in 2012, Israel conducted a diplomatic campaign aimed at preparing its partners and the international community in general for the idea of a possible military operation by Israel. However, soon thereafter Israel changed its mind. One reason for their having done so could really have been Obama's "veto," another possible reason could have been Iran's slowdown in the implementation of its nuclear program during 2012, which moved away from the limit set by Israel, the crossing of which would enable Iran to create a nuclear weapon in a relatively short period of time. In any case, the autumn of 2012 did not see the start of a war with Iran.
However, in that period, when the possibility of such a strike was seen as something real, Russia was busy discussing scenarios for using a possible attack on Iran for undertaking similar actions against Georgia and had begun preparing potential justifications for such an action.
As early as in December 2011, Russian General Yuriy Netkachev declared that in the event of a war in Iran, the Russian military base located in Gyumri, Armenia, would come to face problems with the supplies it receives through Iran. Were this to happen, Russia would have no other option but to invade Georgia with military force in order to install control of a transportation corridor to Armenia. In January 2012, a military expert, Colonel Аnatoly Tsyganok, also referred to the same Russian plan, adding that the "Kavkavz 2012" military exercises, which were scheduled to take place that September in the North Caucasus, were related to the rising tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Dangerous messages were also emanating from more official sources. On 14 March 2012, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov did not exclude "a new adventure" from the Georgian side, attributing this threat to the "hot-headedness" of President Mikheil Saakashvili. On the same day, the Russian edition, Kommersant, carried an article in which a high official of the Russian Foreign Ministry predicted the start of a war in Iran before the end of 2012. The same article contained a statement by a representative of the Russian Defense Ministry claiming that Moscow had already devised a plan envisaging "closing certain holes" in the Caucasus.That was complemented by a statement from the Russian Minister of Defense, Anatoly Serdyukov, made on 20 March 2012, in which he spoke about the increasing threat of Russia being dragged into military conflicts because of escalating tensions along its borders. On the same day, the Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, wrote, based on a source at the Defense Ministry, that the threat of an attack against Iran was a topical issue for the Russian leadership and, moreover, that Georgia's provocations against "Russia's allies – Abkhazia and South Ossetia" were not being excluded. Consequently, according to that source, the Russian army would devise a broader spectrum of tasks for its "Kavkaz 2012" military exercises than were initially planned, including the rapid deployment of military units to the south from various regions of Russia.
This was followed by yet another spate of accusations from Russia on 30 March 2012. According to the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Grigory Karasin: "Georgia is forming illegal military groups in the districts bordering Abkhazia and South Ossetia." At the same time, the Russian news agency, Interfax, reported that Russia's Joint Staff expected the outbreak of a war in Iran in summer 2012 and that the Kremlin had already prepared plans for such an eventuality.
On 19 April 2012, Foreign Minister Lavrov expressed yet further concern about a possible "new adventure" on the part of Saakashvili. On 10 May, Russia's National Anti-Terrorist Committee published a statement accusing Georgia's special services of assisting Doku Umarov, the leader of North Caucasian insurgents. On 22 June, the Sokhumi proxy regime accused Georgia of committing terrorist acts in the Gali district.
All in all, Russia was busy preparing the ground for possible aggression against Georgia. On the one hand, they sent out a message that if Iran was attacked they would have no other option but to ensure a transportation corridor from Russia to Armenia, which implied military intervention in Georgia. On the other hand, they voiced such accusations against Georgia that would serve as a casus belli for Russia launching a war against Georgia in the future. In this regard, they made the significant accusation about Georgia supporting terrorism in the North Caucasus.
Russian analysts also spoke about possible threats posed to Georgia. Andrey Piontkovsky published an article on 16 March 2012 in which he noted that the Kremlin might use the expected war against Iran to justify the invasion of Georgia. On 5 April, the Jamestown Foundation carried Pavel Felgenhauer's article, written in English, saying that in the event of a war in Iran, Russia had an action plan involving Georgia. He also noted that this threat would be further intensified by possible internal disorders in Georgia after the parliamentary elections scheduled for 1 October 2012.
Messages from Georgia
No less interesting were the messages voiced at that time by some Georgian politicians. In January 2012, various persons, seemingly independent from one another, simultaneously engaged in a similar narrative; claiming that a war with Iran was about to start and that Georgia would be engaged in that war. Former President Eduard Shevardnadze said that Georgia was going to join an anti-Iran campaign. Mamuka Areshidze and Elizbar Javelidze, politicians in opposition to the then United National Movement government, repeated the same, adding that the US would use Georgian hospitals in the event of a conflict. According to Javelidze, the hospitals that were then being built in Georgia, as well as the announced project for a new Lazika seaport, were specifically designed for a war in Iran. Russia's key English-language propaganda TV channel, Russia Today, covered the statements of Shevardnadze, Areshidze and Javelidze. The then opposition politician and current State Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, said that the Georgian President intended to participate in the US action against Iran. Several Georgian media outlets, for example, Sakinform and the Georgian Times, also got engaged in this type of propaganda campaign.
In February 2012, the current chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Diaspora and Caucasus Issues, Gubaz Sanikidze, made a very interesting statement. In an interview given to the Georgian weekly, Kviris Palitra, he assessed the moratorium that the political opposition declared on challenging the Georgian government during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008 as having been a mistake. He also said that if the country came to face the threat of war again, the political opposition, this time around, would act differently and "assume responsibility itself." He went on to clarify what he specifically meant: "If the Iran issue becomes exacerbated, we will come to face a threat from Russia. The Gyumri military base [in Armenia] receives supplies from Iran's ports. Russia will not allow the blockade of its military base in Gyumri. If Georgia really comes to face a threat, it will be necessary to take different steps. If overall Georgian consent is achieved with the involvement of the political opposition, society and civil sector, we will be taken into account." In other words, in Gubaz Sanikidze's opinion, in the event of Russian aggression against Georgia, the political opposition would not join the country's resistance against the aggression, but would instead "assume responsibility" from the then incumbent government; in other words, it would start an internal conflict in the setting of ongoing Russian aggression against Georgia.
In March 2012, Levan Pirveli, a former MP of Shevardnadze's vintage now living in Austria, gave an extensive interview to the Russian edition, Kavkazskaya Politika, in which, in a manner similar to Shevardnadze, Areshidze and Javelidze, he said that Georgia was preparing its infrastructure for a war with Iran. Like Gubaz Sanikidze, he also spoke about the threat to Georgia in the event of such a war. Levan Pirveli said that Russia would demand a corridor to Armenia from Georgia and, should this be refused, Russia would secure that corridor by force.
On 16 March 2012, Irakli Alasania, the then opposition leader and current Defense Minister, declared that the Georgian government was getting ready for a civil war and spoke about the threat of a Syria-style scenario occurring in Georgia. He also asserted that the government was forming illegal armed groups. This very statement was used by Grigory Karasin, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, to level the same accusation against Georgia on 30 March. One can well wonder whether the current Defense Minister of Georgia was aware of the extent to which his allegations could harm Georgia and what a dangerous tendency he was supporting back then.
A New Narrative: The Georgian Elections In Lieu of a Conflict with Iran
By the summer 2012, it had become clear for Russia that the expected attack on Iran would not materialize in 2012. Consequently, the talks about Iran and ensuring a corridor to Armenia as a reason for a war with Georgia were put on the back burner. Instead, they started talking about the 1 October parliamentary elections. In an interview published on the official website of the Russian Foreign Ministry on 6 August, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that one could not exclude a military adventure from Saakashvili. The deputy minister recalled the fact that Tbilisi was against signing an agreement on the non-use of force with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, and made the assumption that "in the given situation, when the campaign for parliamentary elections starts in Georgia, the temptation to achieve internal political goals through staging new provocations in the region is high."In this case too, Russia's threatening message accurately imitated the content of some of the statements made in Georgia. On 4 July, Paata Zakareishvili accused the Georgian government of artificially triggering tension in the conflict regions. According to the current State Minister for Reintegration, President Saakashvili intended to use those tensions to thwart or postpone the parliamentary elections. Nor did Zakareishvili exclude that the Georgian government would "not refrain from making complications" in the conflict zone and "exacerbating the tensions." On 21 July, he also said that in the run up to the elections the Georgian government might stage various provocations in Abkhazia.
In the pre-election period Mamuka Areshidze once again showed himself. On 2 August he said that the government might resort to provocations against Russia if it saw that it was losing the elections. As if saying that once was not enough, Areshidze repeated the same statement on 6 August – on the very day that Karasin's interview was published on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website. This time around, Areshidze was unable to "rule out" that such provocations from the Georgian government would result in military actions. He also added that, if that were to happen, the war would be "a crime inspired by the Georgian government." On the same day, Paata Zakareishvili said that in order to distract the attention of the population from its election problems, the Georgian government "is deliberately triggering a confrontation" in the Tskhinvali region "to cause irritation among the Ossetians and Russians."
Concentration of Russian Military Forces
As those ideas about the Georgian government preparing provocations was being promoted in the information space, Russia was actually busy concentrating its military forces around Georgia.
Throughout 2012, Russia had been actively training and rearming its military units deployed in the North Caucasus and occupied regions of Georgia. These activities reached their peak in September 2012. It was exactly during that time, from 17 to 23 September, that the military drills of "Kavkavz 2012" took place. Despite the scale of those drills being officially quite large, the movement of Russian forces in the direction of Georgia in September 2012 was, in reality, of a far wider scale than had been formally envisaged.
During that period, one could observe panic on a specialized internet forum for the families of Russian conscripts. Despite the fact that the military exercises officially ended on 23 September, soldiers of various units informed their families that they were going to be staying in field conditions until the middle or end of October. The families of the conscripts exchanged this information with one another via the Internet, which further strengthened their concerns and uncertainty.
In September 2012, Russia deployed the 18th Motorized Rifle Brigade to the Tskhinvali region, even though the regular occupation forces of the fourth military base, basically representing a motorized rifle brigade, was already stationed in the region. Consequently, in September 2012, two such brigades were present in the Tskhinvali region. Russia also deployed forces from the 291st Artillery Brigade to the region. Moreover, other armed units were pulled towards the borders with Georgia, including the dispatch of airborne forces to Dagestan, marine infantry from Sevastopol's naval base to Krasnodar Krai, assault forces from Ivanovo to Armenia, et cetera. One can also add to these troop dispositions those military units regularly based near the borders of Georgia. The movement of Russian military units was clearly systematic in nature.
The Aims of Russia
In reality, however, the Russian military base in Gyumri and the issue of its supply had nothing to do with a potential war with Iran. Russia was not going to directly engage in a war should one with Iran have started. Nor would the Gyumri base face any threat that would urge Russia to necessarily ensure a direct corridor to Armenia. "The corridor to Armenia" was just a premise. In reality, Russia would use the US attack against Iran as a unique chance to "install order" in the South Caucasus. The war with Iran would be a wide-scale event which would temporarily absorb all of the diplomatic, military, financial and other resources of the US. That would give Russia greater freedom to act. In the Kremlin's opinion, Georgia would become a sort of strategic compensation.
Even though it became clear that a war against Iran was not expected in 2012, Russia did not hurry to cancel its plans concerning Georgia. Its military involvement would also have become possible if an internal conflict had erupted in the country following the parliamentary elections on 1 October and had degraded into wider-scale bloodshed. Russia likes to replicate the actions of the West, thus trying to prove that it is no less than the West. With this in mind, an example for Russia to follow was the Western involvement in Libya in 2011. It is also worth noting that in 2008, the final escalation of Russia's aggression against Georgia started from the very moment Kosovo's independence was declared.
The threat of an internal conflict in Georgia did exist back then. Society was extremely polarized. The level of aggression was very high, reaching a peak after the release of the prison videos showing the torture of inmates. Hate speech had become commonplace in the political arena. Moreover, in the event of defeat, the Georgian Dream coalition was not going to accept the results of the election. That would ensue large and aggressive street protests. Under such conditions, there always is the chance for elements, including a hostile external force, to stage some sort of provocation and turn a political crisis into a tragedy.
At the end of the day, the Georgian Dream emerged as the victor in the parliamentary elections and a peaceful transfer of power followed. However, the threat Georgia faced in the autumn of 2012 was real. Fortunately, in contrast to 2008, a sum of various factors prevented Russia from launching its aggression. Neither the war in Iran nor the internal disorder in Georgia took place. However, those same strategic aims for which Russia devised its aggressive plans against Georgia in 2012 have not disappeared. Georgia still faces the same risk.