Moscow has accused the post-Soviet state of violating United Nations cease-fire agreements by flying the unmanned aircraft over the pro-Moscow separatist region of Abkhazia. Georgia, for its part, claims hard proof of Moscow's meddling, releasing a video it says was taken by its drone that shows images of what looks like a MiG-29 – flown only by the Russian Air Force in that region – shooting a missile that rapidly approaches the camera. The clip ends abruptly in static.
"After repeated incidents of Russia violating Georgia's airspace and unprovoked acts of aggression, this time we have video footage of a Russian aircraft attacking Georgian territory," Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili told journalists Monday night.
The UN Security Council is set to discuss the issue in a closed-door session Wednesday, but any long-term settlement of the complicated background dispute may have to await the outcome of a foreign-policy debate currently raging in Moscow over how to deal with Western-leaning neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine, who seem more determined than ever to join the Western military alliance, NATO.
Earlier this month Russia scored a minor victory when NATO leaders postponed the two countries' applications to enter the military alliance's membership program, but there was little celebration in Moscow. Russia, which sees the advance of NATO to its borders as a strategic nightmare, is scrambling for policy prescriptions aimed at preventing it.
"Some people are saying we've been too flexible and given up too much, and the result is that Georgia and Ukraine are becoming more anti-Russian than ever. These people say we need to take a tough approach," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats. "A different argument says that if we want these countries to be our friends, we should respect their sovereignty and foreign-policy choices.... [Then,] even if they do join NATO, if our relations with them are warm and friendly, it won't matter so much."
Both approaches are on display in Moscow's treatment of Georgia, a country of 5 million on Russia's southern flank. Last week the Kremlin moved to upgrade its relations with two Georgian separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been de facto Russian protectorates since they broke away in the early '90s.
Experts say the measures, which would improve trade and official contacts but fall short of diplomatic recognition, are part of Moscow's response to Western recognition of Kosovo's independence two months ago.
"After Kosovo, the Russian position appears to be that the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is inevitable, even if it's not imminent," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal.
But Georgia was furious. "[Moscow] is virtually saying that it does not recognize the jurisdiction of Georgia regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Mr. Saakashvili thundered last week. "This is an unprecedented breach of the norms of international law and conduct."
On Friday President Vladimir Putin showed an entirely different face, ordering the removal of two-year-old sanctions that blocked imports of Georgian products, imposed severe visa restrictions on Georgians, and closed down postal links between the two countries. "This is convincing evidence of Moscow's constructive policy toward Georgia and its persistent efforts to restore traditionally friendly ties with Georgia," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
'No united position' in Moscow
"What we see here is that there is no united position [in Moscow] about what to do with Georgia," says Artyom Malgin, head of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at Moscow State University for International Relations. "Do we want to cultivate a united, friendly Georgia, or should we put our stake on those pro-Moscow separatist statelets?" he says. "It looks like Putin himself cannot decide which course would be better for Russia."
Sunday's destruction of the Georgian drone over Abkhazia illustrates how unexpected events can throw complicated diplomatic maneuvers into confusion, experts say. Saakashvili has taken Georgia's case to the UN, arguing that Russia is guilty of "military aggression." Moscow, which has blamed the missile on Abkhazian rebels, says that none of its warplanes were even in the air over the Black Sea region on Sunday.
"It's a very dangerous development, and it's even possible that some non-state actors arranged this in a bid to destabilize the situation," says Mr. Malgin.
Russia appears to be engaging in a similar double game toward Ukraine. According to the Moscow daily Kommersant, Mr. Putin told US President George Bush during a closed door meeting in Bucharest early this month that "Ukraine is not even a state!" Citing inner Kremlin sources, the paper said Putin told Mr. Bush that the Ukrainian territory of Crimea was illegally transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, and that Russia might move to take it back if Ukraine attempts to join NATO.
Though the Kremlin has offered no comment on the accuracy of that report, several leading Moscow politicians, and the Russian Army's Chief of Staff General Yury Baluyevsky, have made similar hints publicly. "The Ukrainian leadership has to understand that any attempt [to take Ukraine into NATO] gives Russia the right to raise several issues, including the issue of Crimea," Alexei Ostrovsky, chair of the Duma committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States, told the Monitor Tuesday. "The majority of people who live in Crimea are [ethnic] Russians who do not want to join NATO."
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry issued an angry riposte last week, demanding that Russia "stop making threats against Ukraine." The statement added that "it's becoming increasingly apparent that [joining NATO] is the sole method of guaranteeing the security of our state."
Says Mr. Lukyanov: "This is a psychological war. Moscow knows there are a lot of doubts within Europe about pressing ahead with NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia at the price of ruining relations with Russia. Now Russia is making moves to demonstrate just how high that price might be."