On Monday Moscow announced sanctions against Georgia, including cutting off all air, sea, and land transportation links, postal services, and money transfers. On Tuesday, October 3, after the officers were already back in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that sanctions against Georgia would not be revoked. Lavrov declared that the money sent by the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians living and working in Russia to support relatives back home "is criminal in nature" and used to rearm the Georgian military. Lavrov also called the Georgian government’s procurement of weapons abroad "criminal" and expressed hope that Russian sanctions would help stop this activity. Lavrov accused "third parties" of selling weapons to "the Saakashvili regime" and interfering in Russo-Georgian relations, while Moscow's objective is to "eliminate this problem" (Itar-Tass, October 3).
Lavrov's aggressive rhetoric follows Putin's harsh statement made during a meeting of the Russian Security Council on Sunday (Kremlin.ru, October 1). Putin accused Georgia of "continuing the policies of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, both inside the country and on the international stage." (Beria, an ethnic Georgian, was the notorious chief of Stalin's secret police.) Putin inquired: "They feel at ease, safe and secure under the protection of their foreign sponsors, but is this really so? I would like to hear the views of the representatives of the civil ministries and the military specialists."
The message seems clear: Putin wants regime change in Tbilisi to be achieved with virtually any means. Of course, Russia has been pressuring Georgia for years, trying to subvert it with economic sanctions, political and military pressure, supporting pro-Moscow opposition forces, arming separatist forces, and deploying military intelligence officers.
Putin has accused Georgia's leadership "of state terrorism with hostage-taking" (RIA-Novosti, October 1). But the main problem, constantly raised by Putin, Lavrov, and other officials, is that of "foreign sponsors" or "third parties" -- a clear reference to the West and the United States.
The mirage of a new Russian-led union to replace the old Soviet one has obsessed the Kremlin since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The ruling elite in Moscow today is split between those who want to recreate the Soviet Union per se and "reformers" who want a new, remodeled Soviet Union (or "Imperial Russia") with a thriving market economy and a newly armed, professional military imposing itself on its neighbors. As Putin told the country in August 2000, after the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine, "We will overcome it all and restore it all, the military and the navy and the state" (RTR TV, AP, August 24, 2000).
Today the Kremlin seems to feel itself strong enough, thanks to billions of petro-dollars, to enforce its sovereignty on former Soviet republics. Georgia, a small, impoverished country, riddled with separatist problems, may seem to be a good showcase to install a pro-Moscow regime and at the same time kick out the United States, the West, and NATO.
This is going to get rather ugly.