Russia and Georgia: A Collision Waiting to Happen

Flags of Russia and Georgia Flags of Russia and Georgia

In the five-day war between Russia and Georgia that broke out over South Ossetia (one hopes it is only five days; at the time of writing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has called for an end to military operations) there is the inevitable inclination to assign black and white, blame and innocence.

In the West, and in the United States in particular, the blame falls on Russia, with Georgia as the innocent underdog. The two putative Presidential candidates, to varying degrees, follow this track. Thus, in James Traub's August 10 New York Times article "Taunting the Bear," McCain advisor Robert Kagan is quoted thus: "Their grand ambition is to undo the post-Cold War settlement and to reestablish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia". Mr. McCain himself has offered the melodramatic: "Today, we are all Georgians" (a clear echo of the elegiac post-9/11 French "Today, we are all New Yorkers"). While Mr. Obama is more circumspect, his campaign advisor, Michael McFaul, weighs in on Russia as a"premodern, sphere-of-influence power (with an unreconstructed) cold war mentality."

The truth, of course, is more complex, and is rooted in history. In the 1830s, Mikhail Lermontov, the great Russian romantic "poet of the Caucasus" (and military officer) wrote of the intractable mutual hostility between Ossetians and Georgians. This animosity was manifest at least twice in the previous century.

In the period 1918-20, between the collapse of the Russian empire and the Soviet conquest of Georgia, the South Ossetians revolted against Georgian rule. Seventy years later, in 1989, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Assembly of the autonomous region of South Ossetia called for reunification with North Ossetia. In 1990, after the election of a pro-independence government in Tbilisi led by the ultranationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the Assembly declared South Ossetia a Soviet Republic separate from Georgia. The Gamsakhurdia government responded by sending several thousand nationalist militia into South Ossetia. One year later, Georgia declared independence with the Soviet collapse, and simultaneously abolished the South Ossetian autonomous republic. In 1996, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] brokered the Joint Control Commission, under which Russia and Georgia monitored and patrolled different sectors of South Ossetia.

This OSCE presence remained under the Georgian presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, and until the election in 1998 of the nationalist Mikhail Saakashvili. The Joint Control Commission mandate has remained in place, shakily, with Russian peacekeepers in place in South Ossetia, as in other parts of the former Soviet Union region of Moldova (such as the Trandniestr).

The table was set, therefore, for the current outbreak of hostilities—preceded, incidentally, by violence in July in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia (the other rebel province that has been drawn into the current conflict). But the question remains: why now?

On August 3, five days before the Russian invasion, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that began:

The situation in the Georgian-Ossetian zone of conflict, sharply exacerbated on August 1-2 by a massed mortar attack on residential quarters of Tskhinvali that caused a number of casualties, remains extremely explosive. Wide-scale hostilities between Georgia and South Ossetia are becoming increasingly a real and present threat.

The statement went on:

We consider an immediate resumption of the negotiation process in the Joint Control Commission format extremely important, along with the conduct of urgent working meetings between representatives of the conflicting parties. The course taken by the Georgian side towards dismantling the JCC is in the present conditions particularly counterproductive and dangerous.

This admittedly non-objective source nonetheless confirms reports from European press sources: that the first salvoes in the current conflict were fired by the Georgian side. Again, why, and why now?

First and foremost, Saakashvili has an indelible commitment to win back Georgian control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He is a quintessential nationalist, a more diplomatic and polished version of his predecessor, Gamsakhurdia.

Second, in pragmatic terms, his failure to do so might bolster his domestic opponents.

Third, the issue of the recalcitrant regions was held up as a detriment to Saakashvili's prime objective—NATO membership. Whatever the motivations, even those Western sources generally sympathetic to the Georgian cause point to miscalculation on the Georgian leader's part; a Financial Times editorial of August 12 speaks of "overbidding" by a "reckless" Saakashvili.

From the Russian standpoint, there is also an air of inevitability to the whole thing. As Traub's New York Times article subtitle reads, "Russia and Georgia were going to erupt. It was really just a question of when."

The factors in this inevitability are, most immediately, extreme Russian neuralgia over proposed NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine.

Second, there is the Kosovo question: at the time of the breakaway Serbian province's declaration of independence earlier this year, supported by the United States and much of Western Europe, Russia warned of precedent-setting consequences (especially for Georgia's problem children).

But thirdly, there is a more generic, smoldering issue for Russia—that of the sense of accumulated insult and the high-handedness of the West when Russia was in the post-Cold war doldrums of the 1990s. Thus, the U.S.-led West expanded NATO to Russia's borders, waged war on Russia's fellow Slav ally, Serbia, and, most recently, announced the intention, against Russia's wishes, to deploy ballistic missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Finally, what will be the outcome if, as one hopes, there is a post-conflict negotiation process in the offing? Most obviously, much will depend on Russia's inclinations. Prime Minister Putin has opined that a return to the status quo ante is "hardly conceivable" (the Medvedev-Putin dynamic in this is an interesting sidebar; Putin was in the forefront during the armed conflict, Medvedev as of today seems to be the architect in ending it). Russia has much to gain from magnanimity in victory, and has trump cards to play in its ostensible endgame, securing a degree of self-determination and protection for the South Ossetians.

It is difficult to see a positive side of this for Saakashvili, who clearly gambled on Western military intervention, and lost. Ironically, it may bring home to the Georgian leader the limits of NATO benefits; one wonders if, lawyer that he is, he read closely Article Five of the Alliance's charter, the "attack on one is an attack on all" section, which calls for "such [collective] action as is deemed necessary, including the use of armed force" on behalf of a an aggrieved member. Article Five, in other words, falls short of a binding legal commitment. And the final irony may be that the path to Georgia's NATO (and eventual EU) membership is only traveled by giving up the causes of chronic and debilitating civil conflict.

Read More: Armed Conflict, Europe, Russia, Georgia

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