Russia-Georgia: the Aftermath
Russia-Georgia: the Aftermath
Assessing the Wagner Group’s Aborted Run on Moscow: What Comes Next?
Assessing the Wagner Group’s Aborted Run on Moscow: What Comes Next?
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 13 minutes

Russia-Georgia: the Aftermath

The war in Georgia has triggered a new level of deep mistrust between Russia and its 'Western partners'. The dramatic events of August 2008 have re-established Russia as a threatening military power in the South Caucasus energy corridor running from Baku to Georgia's Black Sea coast. The easy military victory has provoked in Moscow a huge wave of nationalism and euphoria in the large sector of the population that seems to believe their country has returned to the level of power the Soviet Union enjoyed. For the first time, the United States has essentially been absent from negotiations on an armed conflict in Europe, and the Europe Union, led by its rotating presidency, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has managed to broker a ceasefire. But three months after the conflict, as most of the United States' political energy is devoted to its own presidential elections, the EU seems to be changing its tone. It seems ready to accommodate Russia quickly in order to resume the important business it has pending with the biggest country of the continent. This is the wrong approach, one that could cost the EU the ability to be taken seriously in Moscow and throughout Eurasia.

During the months leading up to the war, the level of provocations around the two South Caucasus break-away republics was unusually high. If like every summer, exchanges of fire happened over the ceasefire lines in the usual way that made it impossible for the UN in Abkhazia and the OSCE in South Ossetia to determine which side had started the trouble, a new phenomenon was striking this spring: contrary to its behaviour during most of the last fifteen years, Russia involved itself directly in the game. It first shot down a drone flown by the Georgian Interior Ministry over Abkhazia, then sent its railway troops to repair the line that runs along the Abkhazian coast, and finally Russia unilaterally beefed up its troops on the administrative border. Georgia reacted angrily and made it loud and clear that it no longer regarded Russia as an honest broker in this conflict. Clearly the tension was accelerating, and what in the past did not go beyond an exchange of strong words between Abkhazia, South-Ossetia and Tbilisi, this year became much more dangerous.

Russia ignored all calls to change the negotiating format in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Georgia demanded, and the EU failed to insist. No European political leader showed much interest in the unresolved conflicts until the situation escalated in June-July and finally got out of control in August. In any serious process, when one of the sides of the conflict loses confidence in the mediator, the mediator is well advised to move on and give a chance to another. Russian officials regularly dismissed this notion, however, with the reply that the South Ossetians and Abkhaz would trust no-one but Moscow.

Russia's increasing involvement in the provocation games and its constant and stark refusal of a change of format raised suspicion that its actual goals in Abkhazia and South-Ossetia went far beyond Georgia's borders. Tbilisi in turn was sending its friends very mixed messages. Hawks in President Mikheil Saakashvili's entourage were deeply convinced in April and May that the only way for Georgia to regain its territorial integrity was by military action. Georgia should instead have adopted much earlier a new approach to the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, encouraging their links to the outside world so as to lessen their dependence on Russia and emphasising incremental confidence building to establish the mutual trust needed for successful negotiations. The U.S. and the European Union should have been firm and united in cautioning both Moscow and Tbilisi against military adventures.

However, Moscow apparently received no serious phone calls from Western leaders as it escalated tension by deploying additional troops and military hardware, allegedly in furtherance of its peacekeeping mandate. Former president, now prime minister Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would formalise ties with Abkhazia, and lesser Kremlin officials said Moscow was prepared to use force to protect its citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia if hostilities resumed.

'The UN Security Council, ideally the best institution to react to such an international conflict, was hamstrung by its very composition' Tbilisi initially responded with a diplomatic offensive, enlisting high-level Western political support, while repeating that it wanted to resolve the frozen conflicts peacefully. It shares blame for the escalation, however. It had quietly been making military preparations, particularly in western Georgia and the Upper Kodori valley. Powerful advisers and structures around President Saakashvili appeared increasingly convinced that a military operation in Abkhazia or South Ossetia was feasible and necessary. The Georgians were warned by their Western partners against attempting a military solution, but there were strong feelings in Tbilisi that something had to be done to change a status quo in which, it was believed, Russia was challenging the country's sovereignty with virtual impunity. The risk of miscalculation by either side leading to unintended fighting grew by the hour, with almost no preventive diplomatic moves by the US or the EU.

In Russia, the mainstream media reported more and more on Saakashvili's alleged inability to run Georgia and particularly to re-establish good relationships with its large neighbour. His attempt to join NATO rapidly made the military leadership particularly nervous. Russian public opinion, quite like in the West, is much more shaped by TV and radio than by the written press. That is why President Putin, as soon as he succeeded Boris Yeltsin, established strong governmental controls on the electronic media (with the noticeable exception of Radio Echo Moskvy, whose broadcasting reach has been reduced to Moscow city, but whose critical content has managed to survive), while newspapers remain mostly free to criticise Kremlin politics. Russian public opinion today widely shares the leadership's views on the EU and the US. The West, as seen from Russia, was responsible for the implosion of the Soviet Union, has widely benefited from Moscow's generous withdrawal from Central Europe and, in spite of the promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev, has moved NATO to Russia's borders. The recognition of Kosovo independence against Moscow's will and the wide-spread perception that Saakashvili's regime is much less democratic than those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia helped prepare average Russians for a harsh response to a Georgian crisis.

The rapidity of the Russian response to the reckless Georgian military assault on Tskhinvali was viewed everywhere in the West as proof that Moscow had not only seen it coming, but had provoked it in order to chase the Georgians out of the Kondori Valley in Abkhazia, threaten the delivery of oil from Baku and re-establish itself as a strong military power in the South Caucasus. The entire Russian nation, on the other hand, was swept up by a feeling of being on the right side of history, defending the Ossetians from an unjustified attack, in the legal framework of a security agreement that demanded such a reaction from a responsible protecting power. President Saakashvili was painted on each TV newscast as a fascist and was accused by President Medvedev of launching nothing less than a genocide against the Ossetian nation. The national TV channel RTR ran a remarkable show that called Saakashvili a psychopath and compared his gestures and speaking manners with Adolf Hitler's. Most political analysts, including those who publicly regret the Byzantine way power is exercised in today's Russia, were extremely critical of the West for closing its eyes to the Georgian president's increasing authoritarianism and the questionable aspects of his recent re-election. For Putin and Medvedev, a strong response to a Georgian military adventure was a sure way to win overwhelming approval at home. When the Russian military did not limit itself to pushing the Georgians out of South Ossetia, but instead moved into the Georgian heartland, occuping Gori, Senaki and Poti, and supported the Abkhaz, who attacked the Kondori valley, public opinion was unanimously behind the government, and more than a few voices in the media called for a move into Tbilisi itself so as to overthrow the government.

The UN Security Council, ideally the best institution to react to such an international conflict, was hamstrung by its very composition. With Russia as a permanent member in possession of a veto, no resolution directly or implicitly condemning its military over-reaction was possible. And with a strong ally in Washington, Georgia could feel equally confident the Council would never blame it for a miscalculation that triggered the crisis. The body that should have addressed the conflict was thus condemned to the sidelines.

Despite its supposed 'last super-power' status, the US could offer no more than humanitarian aid and harsh language. A lame-duck president, whose country was in the middle of a heated election campaign and whose government had lost so much credibility in Iraq, lacked the political capital to take the diplomatic lead in resolving this conflict. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comments that Russia could not threaten a country, occupy its capital, overthrow a government and 'get away with it' and President George W Bush's statement that 'bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century', only served to remind the world of Iraq, reinforcing a view that it would be implausible for the US to be a broker in resolving this conflict.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), despite deep animosity expressed within the organisation in recent years between Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries on the one hand and the US and EU on the other, did manage to play a useful, though quite limited role in the crisis. Its High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, for example, made statements firmly identifying how dangerous and destabilising it is for states to take unilateral action to defend, protect or support their citizens or 'ethnic kin' abroad - as Moscow was doing in the breakaway regions of Georgia - and warned against using this as a justification for undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states.

As the conflict unfolded, the OSCE was seen as the natural, most impartial choice for the expanded international monitoring that was clearly needed quickly. And because it was reasonably trusted by all sides and had already had a mission for over a decade in South Ossetia, the response time was refreshingly quick - certainly by comparison with the interminable delays often associated with the deployment or expansion of UN missions. On 13 August, the EU decided to strengthen the OSCE's capabilities; on 19 August, the OSCE Permanent Council agreed in principle to send up to 100 personnel to Georgia to monitor compliance with the ceasefire and withdrawal; two days later the first twenty monitors arrived. The additional 80, however, have not been deployed because Russia refuses to allow them to operate where the civilian population is most at risk.

But when it came to the highest-level diplomacy - the real key to halting the advancing Russian army and rolling back the conflict to a more manageable level - it was the EU that took the lead.

It was direct mediation by President Sarkozy that led to a ceasefire agreement on 12 August and its signature by Russia and Georgia on 15-16 August in Tbilisi and Moscow. The six-point document, calling for an immediate end to all use of force and for both sides to pull back their armies, was admittedly vague; some of its imprecision was used in subsequent weeks to delay implementation, notably by Russia. Still, without some fuzziness in the initial agreement, it is likely Moscow would not have signed. That much follow-up work was necessary was only to be expected.

And, again, it was the EU that led the subsequent diplomacy. An EU delegation headed by Sarkozy travelled to the region on 8 September to press Russia to meet the terms of the August agreement. President Medvedev agreed to withdraw Russian troops behind the line of the start of hostilities by 10 October. To a significant degree, that deadline has been met, allowing EU monitoring teams to begin patrols around South Ossetia.

The problem, of course, is that because Moscow chose to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states at the end of August, the issue of how far Russian troops should pull back within these peace deals is not agreed by all sides. The EU-brokered agreement at least got the Russian army out of the territory beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia, an achievement for which the EU under the French presidency deserves considerable credit. But huge difficulties remain - and as the 15 October collapse of the Russian-Georgian talks in Geneva on a post-conflict agreement showed, the hard work has barely begun.

Russian troops pulled out of their self-declared 'buffer zones' around South Ossetia only after several weeks of looting, arson and reports of attacks against civilians by Ossetian militias. Russia repeatedly denied access to OSCE monitors and UN relief organisations, while it occupied those areas, but it did not restrain the lawlessness. Its forces are in effect demarcating the de facto 'border' between South Ossetia and Georgia by digging trenches and setting up military encampments along it. South Ossetian militias continue to make forays into the former 'buffer zones', intimidating civilians and engaging in looting and stealing. All this seriously impairs Georgia's internal instability.

In addition, despite the ceasefire agreement, Russia refuses to retreat fully to pre-war (7 August) positions. It has stationed hundreds of troops in the Kodori Valley area of Abkhazia, and its overall troop level in the two breakaway regions was over 7,000 at the end of October, roughly double what is contemplated in the ceasefire agreements under which Russia had previously operated. Moscow argues that the two republics asked it to deploy the additional troops and that they are there in response to those requests of sovereign nations. Citing its recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence, it says it has no intention to return to the old troop limits. Russia has also dismissed calls by the EU monitors to withdraw from the region and continues to deny those monitors access to South Ossetia. Moscow does so the more confidently because it knows well that many EU member states are eager for improved relations and an end to the awkward stand-off.

The situation on the ground remains very tense. Almost everyday an incident involving shooting across the ceasefire line - even artillery shelling over the Inguri River on 26 October - claims victims. Ambassador Hansjörg Haber, the head of the EU monitoring mission in Georgia, complained at the end of October that he was not even able to make a phone call to the Russian side to co-ordinate action. He reported to the member states ambassadors that he and his staff ask and try daily in vain to cross into South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The call to the Russians should come from higher up. The EU should pay very serious attention to what is going on within Russia and express itself, both publicly and privately, at least as clearly and insistently as many Russian political analysts have done in recent weeks. The quick, unilateral recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence has triggered a critical public debate in Russia such as has rarely been seen since Putin came to power in 2000. Journalists and other analysts are publicly questioning the wisdom of that decision, which some have called a 'Russian diplomatic defeat'. Serious analysts do not even try to compare the recognition of Kosovo's independence, which came after a long diplomatic process and had the support of most EU member states and immediate neighbours, with the lonely recognition received by the would-be South Caucasus states from Nicaragua. The press is also discussing critically the issue of internally displaced persons and refugees, asking why under Russian 'protection' almost the entire Georgian population of South Ossetia has fled when in Kosovo NATO, the EU and the UN are keeping ethnic Serbs safe?

Before resuming negotiation of a co-operation and partnership agreement (CPA) with Russia, the EU should continue to demand that the Geneva talks reach an early agreement on an international mechanism to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the conflict. Until a new international mechanism is established that merges the forces of the UN, OSCE, EU and Russia currently all deployed in the area, the EU should ensure that its monitoring mission can patrol within South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Europe should not accept that Russia keeps in these republics more soldiers than before the conflict, or that they are deployed to areas where there were no Russian peacekeepers previously, such as Akhalgori in South Ossetia and the Kodori Valley in Abkhazia. As long as Moscow does not agree to these three status-neutral points, none of which would damage its actual position in the South Caucasus, the EU should not resume serious talks on a CPA. And it is to be hoped that the Council of the twenty seven ministers of Foreign Affairs, which meets this Monday 10 November in Brussels, will firmly decide to wait for another month, and for Russia to deliver, before it gives the green light to resume the CPA negotiations.

Russia has its own reasons for wanting good relationships on this continent. The EU may not realise it, but it is much more criticised in Russia for its weakness than for defending what it stands for. Russia scorns and dismisses the weak but always ends up talking with the strong. After the amount of tension the relationship has been burdened with over the last three months, a 'détente' would be more than welcome. But not one that would leave Europe looking foolish and defeated.

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