Part 1 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.
Russia’s retaliatory bombing and invasion of Georgia last month and the ongoing aftermath has developed into one of the most troubling international episodes of this decade. Russia’s belligerent response to Georgian operations in South Ossetia, a Georgian breakaway province, confirmed what had already been Russia’s scarcely hidden intention to dominate its neighbors, particularly those in the Caucasus and in Eastern Europe. The anemic Western response in the face of Russian aggression against one of its newest allies underscores the significant leverage Russia has attained this past decade over Europe and America, and such inaction bears disturbing similarity to the feeble Western response to Hitler’s aggression preceding WWII. In the following months, the United States and Europe would do well to punish Russia in a more meaningful manner than they have so far, or else resurgent Russia will be only further emboldened to bluntly wield its hard power over its weaker neighbors.
Of all of its comparatively weak Caucasus neighbors, perhaps none have been more of a thorn in Russia’s side lately than Georgia, particularly in the four years since the election of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Under President Saakashvili’s liberal economic reforms, the once poor Georgian economy is showing signs of life, experiencing 10% growth in 2007 (although unemployment and poverty could have been lower). In addition, President Saakashvili rooted out much of the corruption that had existed within the government under its previous president – the former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
Worse yet for Russia, President Saakashvili has consistently taken a defiant stance towards its giant neighbor. From the very beginning of his Presidency, President Saakashvili has strived to reestablish Georgian control over the country’s several breakaway provinces: indeed, in the first months of his Presidency he succeeded in regaining control over the Southwestern breakaway province of Ajara. In addition, President Saakashvili has reached out to the West, particularly the United States: Georgia had as many as 2,000 troops in Iraq as part of the coalition forces, and U.S. President George W. Bush received an exceptionally warm welcome from President Saakashvili and the rest of Tbilisi in 2005, among other things.
Most critical of all, Georgia has increasingly sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a move that Russia has repeatedly stated it would not tolerate, and it is easy to see why: for a Russia that seeks to have a strong influence over its neighbors, the idea of a Western alliance being extended to include one of its bordering countries, particularly one in an area that Russia has long considered to be in its sphere of influence, is unacceptable.
Conveniently for Russia, though, Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have presented a relatively easy opportunity for undermining the increasingly pesky Caucasus state. These two separatist regions won de facto independence in the first few years after the independence of Georgia itself after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although no country recognizes either region’s statehood (except for Russia, which formally recognized the areas a few days ago), their autonomy has been preserved for over a decade, thanks in large part to significant Russian aid and a ceasefire arrangement monitored by Russian “peacekeepers.”
The Georgians claim that both regions are integral parts of Georgia and that there would be a Georgian majority in both territories if it were not for the forced deportation of Georgian citizens, and so they have been outraged at the regions’ autonomy, viewing it as an unacceptable violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity, not only by the Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists, but also by the Russian “peacekeepers” that have been stationed in the regions. The Abkhaz and the Ossetians, meanwhile, argue that their distinct languages and cultures should give them the right to self-determination.
Like other ethnic issues in the Caucasus, though, the question of the legitimacy of either of these claims has no easy answer. It is difficult even today for historians to agree on when exactly the Georgians, the Abkhaz, and the other numerous Caucasus tribes gained their present identity. It is true that for part of history, including during much of the Middle Ages, the Abkhaz and Ossetians were part of a Georgian kingdom, but this kingdom itself was a multiethnic entity consisting of various tribes; indeed, the very concept of a Georgian race takes into account several different tribes. Numerous migrations and resettlements of populations have also complicated each ethnicity’s historical ties to the areas each one claims.
The Russians, though, have clearly not reached out towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia because of any sympathy for either region’s aspirations for statehood. Indeed, the Russians have played a complicated game of their own in bolstering these two Georgian breakaway regions, since Russia too rules over several Caucasus regions and peoples that also warm at the idea of statehood, particularly the Chechens. In supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, then, the Russians have in fact undermined their authority inside their own borders.
Evidently, though, Russia does not seem to care about promoting such double standards as long as Georgia is weakened as a result; indeed, Russia has gone to great lengths to support the two breakaway territories at Georgia’s expense. In conjunction with imposing several rounds of sanctions on Georgia, Russia has not placed any sanctions on Abkhazia or South Ossetia, allowing movement of people and goods across its borders with the two areas. Russian financial aid helps to keep the regions’ economies and governments afloat, and Russia has even distributed Russian passports to much of the population in each region.
Although Georgia technically initiated last month’s violence by sending troops into South Ossetia, such a conflict seems to compliment Russia’s interests and past support of South Ossetia and Abkhazia too well for one not to be suspicious of a possible Russian instigation of hostilities. The presence of Russian “peacekeepers” and passport holders gave Russia a possible excuse to justify a Russian intervention to the West in the event of Georgian operations. The speed at which the Russian military mobilized and invaded Georgia in response to Georgian military action in South Ossetia seems to suggest that Russia was too ready and prepared for retaliation for it not to have had a hand in the initiation of violence; indeed, with Russian “peacekeepers” already in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, egging on the separatist forces does not seem so hard for Russia. With West-backed Kosovo recently independent from Russian ally Serbia, Georgia up for potential NATO admission in a few months, and much of the world focused on the Beijing Olympics, the timing seemed all too perfect for Russia to strike a blow against its defiant neighbor and send a resounding message to its other neighbors and the West.
Perhaps President Saakashvili was met with a significant enough provocation from Ossetian separatists to justify sending Georgian troops to the region; perhaps he was bent on retaking South Ossetia while the rest of the world was distracted by the Olympics in order to cement his legacy. Whatever the reasoning, though, President Saakashvili should have known better. Instead, he played right into the bear’s hands.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Part 1 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.
Part 2 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.
Now, Georgia and the rest of the world will have to deal with the consequences of Russia’s calculations and President Saakashvili’s miscalculation. For Georgia, the short war with Russia has been devastating: thousands of its people have died or have become refugees, and much of its civilian and military infrastructure has been damaged. Worse yet, the status quo now enforced by the Russians, in which Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists control all of their respective regions and Russian “peacekeepers” even patrol a buffer zone a few miles within Georgia proper, is much worse than the one President Saakashvili tried to reverse with last month’s operations.
In addition, the conflict has highlighted some glaring problems in the Georgian military, which seemed to be inadequately trained and was unable to effectively respond to Russian warplanes and tanks in the weeklong period of intense combat. These tactical failures greatly contributed to Georgia’s defeat in a conflict that has thoroughly underscored Georgia’s relative weakness compared to Russia.
Such a sound defeat of Georgia has sent, as the Russians intended, a clear signal to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe that Russia has no qualms about enforcing its will and backing up its statements in stark contrast to the West, which has taken few practical measures to back up its statements and assurances of support. Russia’s neighbors, particularly Ukraine and Azerbaijan, neither of which have acted as much in accord with Russian interests as Russia would have liked, will likely wonder if they might soon face a similar fate as Georgia if they do not comply with Russian demands.
Indeed, Ukraine and Azerbaijan as well as Moldova also have unruly or disputed regions that have historically been backed by Russia, and one cannot help but wonder if Russia might in the future use such territories as windows for influence and intervention as they did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Part 3 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.
Ukraine’s control over the Crimean peninsula in the Post-Cold War era has been a particularly sore spot for the Russians. Crimea is considered by many to be an integral part of Russia and was under continuous Russian control for centuries. Indeed, ethnic Russians make up a majority of Crimea’s population today (though only after decades of eviction of the Crimean Tatars and resettlement by the Russians). After the creation of the Soviet Union, Crimea was part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), but in 1954 it was given to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkSSR). At the time such an act had little practical significance, but when the former SSRs gained independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Crimea found itself as a part of Ukraine instead of Russia because of the earlier transfer.
While Crimea’s historical ties to Russia and its allure as a tourist destination inevitably made the Russians unhappy with the loss, a more critical matter dominated tensions over Crimea: what to do with the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet anchored at the peninsula at Sevastopol.
Such tensions would be eased for the moment, though, with the Treaty of Friendship in 1997 between Ukraine and Russia, in which Russia essentially recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and, in return, Ukraine let Russia have most of the Black Sea Fleet as well as a long-term lease of a naval base in Sevastopol. Many at the time hoped this agreement would spell the end of the dispute over Crimea and Sevastopol and might eventually pave the way for better relations between Ukraine and Russia. However, tensions have since flared up again between Ukraine and Russia, particularly in the years following the election of the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko (who, incidentally, was mysteriously poisoned while campaigning in 2004). Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO, as with Georgia’s, has especially angered Russia. Now, in light of last months’ events in South Ossetia and Georgia, Ukraine can only help but wonder if it will pay the same price as Georgia for defying Russia and if such a price will be extracted through a renewal of the dispute over Crimea.
Part 4 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.
Ukraine, though, should not be as worried about possible Russian involvement in Crimea as Azerbaijan should be about a possible Russian intervention in its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. This predominantly Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan was able to break away from Azerbaijani rule with the help of the military of the country of Armenia in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In fact, by the time a ceasefire agreement was reached, Karabakh and Armenian troops were in control of all of Nagorno-Karabakh as well a significant amount of the surrounding territory, including some that bordered Armenia, which allowed for a direct overland connection between Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azerbaijanis have naturally been unhappy with the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian troops occupying much of its territory, but they have not had sufficient military might to challenge the status quo. Still, tensions have remained high: skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops continue to erupt sporadically, and Azerbaijan has steadily invested its new oil wealth into building up its military, seemingly with the goal of eventually being strong enough to retake the enclave by force.
In taking action with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, though, Azerbaijan must contend not only with Armenia, but also with Russia, which has been shipping arms and natural gas to Armenia and maintains a sizeable military base in the country. As with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia’s support of Nagorno-Karabakh through Armenia has nothing to do with any sympathy towards the Armenian enclave but rather is a means by which to weaken Azerbaijan. Russia certainly has an interest in undermining Azerbaijan: in addition to being one of its bordering countries, Azerbaijan is also the origin of several East-West oil and natural gas pipelines (some of which run through Georgia) that bypass Russian soil, helping to loosen Russia’s hold on European energy markets.  In light of its successful, fairly unimpeded operations against Georgia through South Ossetia and Abkhazia last month, Russia may decide to reassert its dominance over Azerbaijan and, by extension, over energy markets by escalating the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Part 5 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.
Perhaps no breakaway region has been as strongly supported by (and, as a result, dependent on) Russia as tiny Moldova’s even tinier breakaway region of Transnistria has been. This miniscule Ukrainian and Russian enclave amidst a country of mostly Romanian-related Moldavians was able to achieve de facto independence in 1992, in no small part due to the support of the former Soviet 14th Army that was stationed there.
Ever since gaining such autonomy, though, Transnistria has been in a rather precarious position. A sliver of land across from the Dniester River spanning only 1,607 square miles, Transnistria has little space for any sort of production (though it is fairly industrialized) and has virtually no cushion in the event of a serious attack. In addition, the small separatist region is landlocked in between Ukraine and Moldova proper, making any sort of trade tricky, since Ukraine does not recognize it and Moldova, of course, still claims it. Indeed, smuggling has been one of the primary sources not of only revenue, but also of goods for Transnistria, but even this option is growing less successful: in recent years Ukraine and Moldova have started to crack down more and more on such smuggling activity with the separatist region.
Fortunately for Transnistria, though, Russia has long provided a good deal of support and aid to the breakaway region so that it has been able to maintain its autonomy from Moldova. From various routes, Russian aid and goods have reached Transnistria, helping it keep its economy afloat. As in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russian passports have been distributed to the people of Transnistria. Most critically of all, though, Russian troops remain in Transnistria, helping to ensure that the weak Moldovan military has little chance of retaking the enclave by force.
Although Russia has been able to maintain a strong presence in Transnistria, it would be significantly more difficult for Russia to launch full-scale military operations against Moldova from the enclave than it was for Russia to do so against Georgia through Abkhazia and South Ossetia, mainly due to the fact that Transnistria does not border Russia, as Abkhazia and South Ossetia do, and also that, given the current tensions, there seems to be little to no chance that Ukraine would allow Russian troops to march through its territory to reach Transnistria. For the moment, though, Russia has no interest in such an operation, since Moldova has not been as troublesome as Ukraine and Azerbaijan, and indeed Russia already maintains a strong hold over Moldova because of its support of Transnistria. However, the possibility of such an operation is certainly on the table, particularly in light of the recent events in Georgia.
Part 6 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.
If the West and the rest of the world do not want to see further Russian incursions into countries in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus, they will need to punish Russia more effectively for last month’s incursion into Georgia than they have so far. Unfortunately, the West’s options are constrained by the significant leverage Russia has attained over it. In particular, Western Europe has come to rely heavily on Russian energy exports: the European Union (EU) currently imports nearly half of its natural gas and 30% of its oil. Russia has demonstrated in the past that it is willing to use its energy exports as a political tool, and so European nations are rightfully worried that if they respond too harshly to Russian actions in Georgia – like by imposing sanctions, perhaps – Russia may very well retaliate by halting the exportation of oil and natural gas to the said countries or by raising the prices of such resources. Either move would have a devastating effect on the economies of Europe.
Even the United States has had to rely on Russia in recent years. Sufficient Russian diplomatic pressure could potentially tip the scales in favor of or against the United States with regard to Iran, Sudan, and North Korea. Such support from Russia could not really be counted on, though, if the United States responds too forcefully to last month’s invasion of Georgia.
Despite the weight of Russia’s leverage, Western rhetoric has at least been critical of Russia’s aggression, with EU countries, particularly France, condemning Russian military operations and President Bush calling Russia’s actions “unacceptable in the 21st century.”
China, meanwhile, has not overtly supported or condemned Russia: through a joint statement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China officially supported “the active role of Russia in assisting peace and cooperation in the region” but at the same time expressed “deep concern over the recent tensions surrounding the South Ossetia question and calls for the sides to peacefully resolve existing problems through dialogue.”
Still, the West can and should do more to express its discontent with Russia’s recent actions towards Georgia. Rhetoric may effectively convey opinions and stir emotion, but it has limited practical effect. The option of expelling Russia from the G8 also does not seem very pragmatic and indeed might weaken the legitimacy of the organization. With sanctions seeming too risky and double-edged and direct military intervention absurd, the West should instead focus on rebuilding Georgia, particularly its infrastructure and military, and it should also not put an end to Georgia’s as well as Ukraine’s hopes for joining NATO (though at the same time it should entreat Georgian and Ukrainian leaders not to act so rashly in the future so as to lessen the chances of a repeat of last month’s events in Georgia). In particular, the United States should continue to have military advisors train the Georgian military and should start shipping more weapons to Georgia as well. Such actions would not directly punish Russia, but they would in effect undo some of the gains that Russia hoped to achieve by invading Georgia in the first place.
If nothing else, hopefully last month’s events will push the West to reduce its reliance on Russia in the long term. For Europe, this means lessening its dependence on Russian energy by continuing to pursue alternatives to fossil fuels as well as to keep looking for energy routes (such as the Caucasus pipelines) that bypass Russia. For America, this means moving away from the highly personal relationship with Russia that Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin had cultivated with U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Instead, the United States should move back towards a stricter, more interest-based relationship with Russia.
No matter what further action is taken, though, last month’s Georgia episode has clearly been one of the greatest strains on the current international system of checks and balances. At the moment, the long term lesson from this incident has been that, with enough hard power, a country can do what it pleases without consequence. Indeed, in a way the United States itself has reinforced this impression with its fairly unilateral invasion of Iraq and conduct in its “war on terror.”
Such an environment is eerily similar to that which existed in the years preceding WWII as the international community and the League of Nations did little to hinder the aggressive advances of Japan and Nazi Germany. This would eventually lead to the end of the set international order and of the League of Nations. Hopefully, a similar restructuring will not take place now.
With Russia, though, the rest of the world might get lucky. Russia’s resurgence has been no Renaissance: it has not invested its oil and natural gas wealth into long term economic stability, and so its influence will likely wane as oil and natural gas fall out of use and favor.
The rise of powers such as India and China, though, seem inevitable. Perhaps the most enduring effect of last month’s events in Georgia is what lessons these and other rising countries will take from them.