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Differing interpretations of Putinís missile statement

By Ernest Petrosyan
Tuesday, January 24
On January 18, Russian Prime Minister and President-to-be Vladimir Putin announced to members of the Russian media that if Georgia deploys an anti-missile system, Russia will be forced to target its missiles towards its neighbour. Putin expressed his regret over the possibility of such developments. It would be unfortunate, he said, to target our missiles at Georgia. But is there any guarantee that the situation will not merit it? He claims to have contacted Georgian leadership, in order to foster co-operation and prevent such an escalation, but that government officials routinely refused his advances.

Since that press conference, Georgian politicians, analysts, and commentators have presented differing interpretations of Putin's statements. Many have speculated that this is a clear-cut threat, and that the Russians intend to attack once more. However, others have suggested that this is an invitation from the Russian side to start a new dialogue.

It is notable that Russia made its anti-missile policy clear on the eve of Mikheil Saakashvili's meeting with American President Barack Obama, taking place in Washington on January 30th. This thought occurred to the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well, who responded immediately to the Russian Premier's statement by maintaining that, at this stage, no negotiations are taking place between the U.S. and Georgia on the possibility of deploying American anti-missile systems on Georgian territory. Further, Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze doubts that this subject will be raised at the U.S.-Georgia summit at all.

Regardless of the Georgian government's anti-missile intentions, many analysts have a gloomy view of the situation, especially in light of the fact that Georgia does not yet enjoy the protection of NATO membership. Relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are in a permanent state of tension, and Russian troops currently occupy one fifth of Georgian territory. Under the circumstances, Russia is capable of not only threatening Georgia with force, but acting upon those threats as well. Some commentators even speculate that one could interpret Putin's remarks retroactively, suggesting that part of the motivations for Russia's 2008 military action against Georgia were to prevent the future deployment of anti-missile devices. Further complicating the situation is Iran's renewed efforts to build or acquire nuclear weapons, causing tension and destabilization in the region. In the case of American or Western confrontation with Iran, the Kremlin could decide to reinforce its military base in Megri, Armenia, which borders on the nation in question. The pessimistic view is that Russia could seek to transport supplies across Georgia to Armenia, even in the case of a refusal from Tbilisi. Many in Georgia believe that such an action, illegal under international law, is not out of the realm of possibility for Putin's Russia.

However, some Georgian politicians see Putin's statements as fundamentally positive, a proposal for better communication between the two nations. Yet this seems like the most unlikely scenario of all; it is difficult to imagine any kind of friendly dialogue between the current Georgian and Russian leadership - especially when public opinion thrives on their hostility.