An invading column of Russia's Grad (Hail) multiple rocket launch system enters central Tskhinvali, the capital of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia, August 12, 2008. (Image: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement this week that ISIS is using Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge as a base for destabilizing the entire Caucasus is a clear indication that Moscow is laying the groundwork for another invasion of Georgia and doing so in a way that may be hard for some Western governments to oppose.
Representatives of the Islamic State, Lavrov said on Tuesday, “are using this isolated territory in order to train, rest and fill their ranks.” That constitutes “a terrorist threat” and is the major reason that Moscow has rejected the idea of a visa-free regime for Georgian citizens.
The foreign minister’s charge attracted enormous attention in Moscow and denials by Tbilisi. Georgian Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili said that there was no basis for Lavrov’s claims and that the Georgian authorities “completely control” the Pankisi Gorge. Consequently, “no terrorist risks exist there.”
But that denial has not stopped the flood of Russian commentaries on this “threat,” an indication that at least some in Moscow view it at a minimum as another way to isolate and put pressure on Tbilisi or at a maximum as laying the foundation for a new Russian military strike, one that because it would be nominally against ISIS, the West might not oppose.
In a detailed article today on the Svobodnaya pressa portal, Moscow journalist Anton Mardasov surveys this discussion, pointing out that it has roots in the past and that it points to problems for Georgia and other countries in the South Caucasus far beyond the Gorge itself.
Last December, Mardasov begins, a senior South Osetian official said that “militants who had come from Syria were concentrating in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge” and that these militants “were preparing provocations in the direction of the Georgian-South Ossetian border.” At the time, Georgian security officials dismissed this out of hand.
Then, South Ossetia’s government paper, “Yuzhnaya Osetiya,” published materials which it said proved that ISIS militants were in Pankisi and that the Georgian denials should be ignored. And it pointed out that in June 2015, Valid Abaz, a Syrian general, had talked about the existence of an ISIS base in Georgia.
According to him, “Chechen militants in Georgia were being encouraged to attach themselves to ISIS because they have experience in military operations.” He added that “the base itself apparently enjoys the complete support of Tbilisi,” an assertion that at a minimum was intended to blacken the Georgian government’s reputation.
Subsequently and especially now, Mardasov says, specialists on the Caucasus say that Georgian actions in fact unwittingly confirm what Tbilisi is denying. Arrests in the Pankisi Gorge of those suspected of ISIS ties are up, but these are being made by local police rather than by Georgian security officials.
Aleksandr Krylov, the president of the Russian Scientific Society of Caucasus Specialists and a researcher at Moscow’s IMEMO, says that “the threat emanating from the Pankisi Gorge is becoming ever more real because militants are being driven out of Syria and Iraq” as a result of “the successful actions of the Syrian army” and its allies.
Krylov says that there are “two dimensions” to the Pankisi Gorge problem. On the one hand, people from that region did go and fight for ISIS in Syria and have ties with the local population in the gorge. And on the other, NATO has been talking about setting up “a regional training center” in Georgia to prepare “moderate Syrian opposition” figures.
Moscow reacted harshly to that idea, IMEMO researcher continues, saying that how could it represent progress to replace the Chechen militants who had been in the Pankisi Gorge with Syrian ones, especially since “the moderate opposition figures often go over to the side of the Islamists.”
Still more worrisome about this idea – which appears to have been shelved – Krylov says is that ISIS views the Caucasus as part of its patrimony and thus would use Pankisi to spread its activities and influence “both in the Russian North Caucasus and in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.”
South Ossetia, Krylov says, is “reliably defended.” (Vadim Mukhanov, an IMEMO researcher agrees.) But the danger for the region of “a partisan war” is intensifying there and in Armenia and Abkhazia. As far as Georgia is concerned, Adjaria is at risk. “Thus we can have quite a lot of potential theaters of military operation.”
That points to destabilization across the region, Krylov says; and “it is thus important for the states of the region together with Russia to find forms of joint opposition to this growing threat” – especially since “’the honeymoon’” between Georgia and the West has ended and Tbilisi can’t be counted on to take action on its own.