Déjà Vu All Over Again in Georgia

There was a sense of “here we go again” last week, when the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed to have suppressed an army mutiny fomented by Moscow, even as some 600 troops from several nations including the United States arrived in Tblisi for the start of a NATO-led exercise.

Last August, the Georgian army began its ill-fated attack on the separatist region of South Ossetia a week after the end of a combined U.S.-Georgian exercise. Over 100 American military personnel were still in Georgia when the Russians counterattacked and swept across Georgia like a knife through butter. The Americans were eventually evacuated, but the same can’t be said for a half-dozen or so U.S. Marine Humvees, which the Russians borrowed on what seems to have become a permanent basis. In any case, the vehicles have yet to be returned.

The Russians denounced the latest joint exercise in neighboring Georgia as a security threat. And there was some debate even in the Pentagon on the wisdom of staging the exercise, considering Georgia’s still-unsettled political state from the fallout of its hapless brush with Russia.

NATO ended up going ahead this week with the month-long exercise. Called Cooperative Longbow 09, with a shorter follow-up called Cooperative Lancer 09, it is designed to improve field coordination between Atlantic Alliance forces and those of the so-called “partners for peace,” mainly countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

But the operation won’t go off quite as planned. Of the 20 countries that originally signed up to participate, at least seven have dropped out, following Moscow’s vigorous protests. They included Armenia, Moldavia, Kazakhstan and Serbia, as well as Latvia and Estonia (both NATO members) and Switzerland. NATO argues that Moscow cannot be allowed to dictate its agenda. Some of Russia’s neighbors, by all indications, prefer to be more prudent.

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