The Coming Russia-Georgia Clash Over Abkhazia

By Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova

All summer, Kremlin officials hinted that hostilities between Russia and Georgia could rise to a boil again. Now it looks as if Moscow has decided to turn up the heat. Last week a Russian patrol boat carrying rockets docked in a port along the coast of Abkhazia, one of Georgia's Russian-backed breakaway republics. Moscow has promised nine more ships to follow. They will confront a small fleet of U.S.-supplied Georgian gunboats, which until now have effectively blockaded Abkhazia, seizing ships--including a Turkish tanker--attempting to supply the rebel government. So far the Georgian boats have made no attempt to confront the Russians. But the arrival of the Russian Navy puts Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his U.S. allies in a bind. The last thing that President Obama wants is a renewed Russo-Georgian war, especially now that he has "reset" relations with Moscow by scrapping a missile-defense program that the Kremlin had fervently opposed. At the same time, being forced to lift the blockade of Abkhazia would be a major defeat for Saakashvili, a key democratic U.S. ally in a turbulent region. Moscow's hardliners seem determined to reassert their influence--one Russian parliamentarian warned that Georgia is "running around a barrel full of gasoline with a burning torch." It could be a hot winter.