Explaining Russia's Silence On U.S. Arms Sales To Georgia
When news broke last week that the U.S. Congress had mandated that the Obama administration "normalize" military relations with Georgia, which would include the sale of defensive weapons to Tbilisi, it seemed inevitable that this would spark a furious reaction from Moscow. The Kremlin had said that this, more than anything else, was the issue that would ruin the reset. And Russia has been overreacting to all sorts of related issues lately, like a slight shift in NATO's rhetoric towards Georgia. The Kremlin tried to gin up a controversy about Georgia harboring anti-Russia "terrorists," and has made several threats about the U.S.'s European missile defense plans.
And yet, it's now a week after Congress passed the law, and the response from Moscow is... crickets. I've asked a variety of knowledgable sources in Moscow, Tbilisi and Washington for their theories on this. Here are some of their ideas:
-- Russia is too occupied with its own domestic crisis to worry about Georgia. This might have something to do with it, but if so, it would invalidate Georgians' theories that the recent "terror" plot was a ploy by the Kremlin to rally the Russian public around an external enemy. If they were looking to do that, this very real action by Congress would have been a lot more useful a foil than an apparently imagined terror plot.
-- The Kremlin sees this as still in the discussion phase, and not worth reacting to yet. Yes, the law has yet to be signed by President Obama, and yes, it only requires the Defense and State Departments to come up with a plan for normalizing relations. But people who understand the law and how it applies here have assured me that, while there may have to be some intermediate steps along the way, this is something that would effectively compel the U.S. to start selling weapons again to Georgia. The State Department won't just be able to blow this off (if they had been inclined to do so.) Presumably Moscow knows this as well.
-- Behind the scenes, American diplomats have told their Russian interlocutors "Don't blame us: it's McCain." It was Senator John McCain who was behind the inclusion of this provision in the defense authorization bill, and he is well known in Russia as a Russophobe and Georgiophile. So this being his initiative may blunt some of the impact.
-- There is some kind of behind-the-scenes deal between Tbilisi, Moscow and Washington. This, to me, is the most plausible, though it requires a bit of conspiracy theorizing. Georgia had veto power over Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization, and the U.S. helped broker the deal that won Tbilisi's approval. It would seem obvious that Georgia asked something in exchange for its cooperation, and this might be it. This would help explain why the Georgian government, too, has been relatively restrained about the news: if the U.S. brokered this, they would presumably ask both sides not to not make too big a deal over it. (This might also explain why, unlike the Russian government, the South Ossetia government did publicly object.) In this scenario, McCain's role would have to be explained away, but he could either have been cooperating with the White House on it, or the White House may have asked McCain's opponents on this to lay off because of the larger picture. That's a bit convoluted, but is as good an explanation as I've seen.
Any other theories? Drop a line.