The now independent states that once made up the Republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are often referred to in Russia as the “near-abroad”. The meaning of near-abroad, depending on how broadly you want to interpret it, can range from “those areas that used to be part of Russia in our imperial past” to “those areas that really ought to be within our sphere of influence” to “those areas where we have the right to meddle at will”. Relations between Russia and the near-abroad range from “let us celebrate our Slavic brotherhood” (Belarus, the gas price kerfuffle of late 2006 notwithstanding) to downright nasty.

Bad blood between Estonia and Russia received a lot of western press attention this spring, after Estonian plans to relocate a Soviet-era World War II memorial that contained soldiers’ remains from a prominent location in central Talinn to a cemetery outside the city resulted in a wave of violent protests by ethnic Russians in Estonia and in anti-Estonian protests and attacks within Russia, followed by an apparent cyber-attack on Estonian government websites.

The Russia-Estonia conflict, though, will likely remain no more than sturm und drang. Estonia is, after all, a NATO member, and there is little reason to think that despite all the hype, the conflict will ever go hot.

No, if you want to put money on a hot war somewhere in the near-abroad, I’d advise you to give considerably more attention to relations between Russia and Georgia.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been less than cordial ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with disputes over the status of the so-called break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia fueling the flames. The situation deteriorated significantly after the Rose Revolution of 2003, in which the corrupt government of Eduard Shevardnadze (better known in the US for his role as Gorbachev’s foreign minister) was forced out in favor of Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili, who lived for a time in the United States in the early 1990s, took an unabashedly pro-western stance, going so far as to suggest that Georgia be considered a candidate for eventual NATO membership. Russia, naturally, did not take kindly to Georgia’s new orientation, and in the four years hence, there have been numerous incidents that have escalated tensions between Russia and Georgia. Here’s a few highlights for your consideration:

  • a Russian boycott of Georgian wine and mineral water (a major export for Georgia)
  • gas pipeline explosions (blamed on Chechen rebels) that disrupted gas supplies to Georgia
  • the expulsion of four Russian military officers (attached to the Russian embassy) from Georgia on accusations of espionage, followed by retaliatory expulsions of Georgians from Russia

Perhaps most disturbing, though, are claims that Russian military helicopters participated in an attack on a Georgian government building in Abkhazia, in an attempt to disrupt efforts by the Georgian government to build a stronger presence in the breakaway region. According to the Wall Street Journal, a UN report, due out as early as next week, will provide a detailed account of this incident, which occurred on March 11 of this year (the article is behind the WSJ pay wall, but can be read here). The dispensation of Kosovo also has important implications for Russian-Georgian relations, as many expect that if Kosovo is granted independence, then Russia may recognize both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent.

The upshot is that while cyber-war may make for sexy headlines, it’s the potential for an old-fashioned hot war that should most concern us. On the other hand, observers have been sounding the warning about the potential for a hot war between Russia and Georgia for years now. Who knows whether anything will ever come of it? Still, it’s plenty worth keeping an eye on.

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