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New war, old foes

Fiona Clark, MoscowOctober 5, 2015

As Russia embarks on an anti-"Islamic State" bombing campaign in Syria, President Vladimir Putin seems to be reverting to tried and true tactics. Fiona Clark reports from Moscow.

Image: imago/ITAR-TASS

It has been quiet in eastern Ukraine for a couple of weeks now, and, according to Russia's daily business newspaper Kommersant, there could be a very good reason for that. The paper claims to have interviewed a man from Tajikistan who was fighting alongside pro-Russian forces in Ukraine who now says he and his colleagues are relocating to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad.

It's not clear if this is an ordered "voluntary" engagement or if these guys are heading off purely of their own volition, but either way they are getting paid - although he doesn't say who is handing out the checks. The paper quotes him as saying that Russia is ready to send about 20 volunteers to the war zone and that there are already 12 in Iraq fighting with the Kurds. If he's telling the truth, that's probably not going to go down well in Washington which may well feel an intense and uneasy case of déjà vu.

Russia maintains that it is not interested in putting "boots on the ground" in Syria, and clearly this is not a mass movement of troops, but as a modus operandi it seems eerily familiar. In Ukraine, Russia also officially denied sending troops over the border to fight. And it's strangely coincidental that there is a voluntary influx of fighters just as Russia turns its attentions to Syria.

The bigger evil?

Russia equates fighting for Assad with fighting against the "Islamic State." The West doesn't quite see it that way, viewing Assad as a significant part of the problem and wants to get rid of both IS and Assad. Putin sees IS as the bigger evil maintaining that Assad can negotiated with later. His logic is that Assad isn't threatening anyone beyond his own borders but IS is, and Russia is a very close neighbor with a large Muslim population. He doesn't want those fighting with IS returning to Russian territory, or that of its former Soviet republics, and performing acts of terrorism there. (Of course there is that nice deep water naval base that Russia needs for quick access to the Mediterranean as well, although there's very little mention of that.)

But Russia's first set of airstrikes don't seem to have hit the mark, with France and the US claiming that, instead of bombing IS targets, they bombed other anti-Assad fighters. Russia denies this, saying some 20 sorties were undertaken and "as a result, arms and fuel depots and military equipment were hit. IS coordination centers in the mountains were totally destroyed."

While the two sides try to determine exactly who was hit, Putin may well find that he's facing his own deja vu a little closer to home in the not too distant future.

Saakashvili makes a move

The former president of Georgia and now Ukrainian citizen and governor of Odessa province, Mikhail Saakashvili, is apparently drawing up a set of laws aimed at reforming not just his region but all of Ukraine. According to one unusual report this will pose quite a challenge to the incumbent prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and could see the popular Saakashvili garner enough support to make a run for the post himself, even though he's previously denied his interest.

Ukraine Odessa Governer Mikhail Saakashvili speaking to a crowd
Saakashvili's grand plans for Ukraine could backfireImage: DW/D. Florin

In his favor is the fact that he's not aligned with any corrupt elements, so it's believed that he could establish a real rule of law and get the beleaguered country sorted out. But what doesn't quite work so well for him is his past history in his home country. Hugely popular when he was first elected in 2004, Saakashvili took Georgia to war against Russia in 2008. Some 2,000 people were killed and Georgia lost two territories to Russia as a result. The pro-western former leader of Georgia was a hero for a short time for standing up to his considerably larger and more powerful neighbor.

He was also initially hailed for bringing an end to state corruption, by doing pretty much what he's doing now - ridding the region of police corruption and organized crime through massive hiring and firing techniques and retraining. But it didn't end so well for him back in Georgia. Described as erratic and egotistical, he was accused of establishing a police state and turning a blind eye to beatings and murders of protesters in police custody. In 2014 he was charged with abuse of power by a Georgian court, but he and his supporters in the West claim the charges are politically motivated.

It would be an ironic twist of fate to have Saakashvili and Putin face off once again, but hopefully he wouldn't try and take on the Russia bear twice. Ukraine could well lose a lot more territory than it already has.

woman standing in theatre copyright: Fiona Clark
Fiona Clark writes a regular column for DW from MoscowImage: DW/F. Clark

Fiona Clark is an Australian journalist currently living in Russia. She started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a TV reporter in the mid-1980s. She has spent the past 10 years working on publications such as The Lancet and Australian Doctor and consumer health websites. This is her second stint in Moscow. She also worked there from 1990 to 1992.