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Georgia and Russia at war

By Jos Boonstra (11/08/2008) Other publications
Anatoly Ruhadze/AFP/Getty Images

What started as an assault by Georgia against the separatist regime of South-Ossetia is now developing into a war between Russia and Georgia. The Ossetians provoked Georgia with Russia’s silent approval, the Georgians reacted excessively by attacking Tskhinvali, and Russia has now taken the conflict to another level by bombing Georgia proper. As developments continue to unfold there are a number of scenarios that are possible and which should be contemplated by the international actors involved:

1. A ceasefire should be reached as soon as possible: Not only between Russian and Georgian forces but also between Abkhaz forces and the Georgian military. The UN, EU and US should be instrumental in this. A unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal from South Ossetia by Georgia has not worked; Russia has stepped up its military campaign. Georgia hovers between armed resistance and despair.

2. At the moment of writing the conflict is spreading to other parts of Georgia while Russia claims its military campaign is near conclusion. A war between Georgia and Abkhazia (the other unrecognised de facto state on Georgian territory) would set the whole country alight. Moreover it would bring new elements into the conflict such as a link between Georgia and potential unrest and conflict in the Northern Caucasus. Freedom fighters and Islamic fundamentalists from Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia might also come to assist Ossetian and Abkhaz fighters, as happened in the early nineties. There is a smaller risk that this conflict might spread to the other two frozen conflicts in Moldova (Transnistria) and Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh). However, as the leaders of both separatist republics have an agreement of mutual military assistance in time of need with their counterparts in Georgia, immediate hostilities in these areas are unlikely at this point.

3. Russia’s policy in the ‘near abroad’ has been one of maintaining the status quo, including through weakening its neighbours by giving support to separatist entities. Now that this status quo is lost and a frozen conflict has become hot, Moscow feels the time has come for a permanent changing of the political landscape. Georgia’s president Saakashvili does not belong in Russia’s vision of Georgia and the Southern Caucasus. The assertive and maverick pro-western Georgian President has been at odds with Russia since his rise to power in 2004 through a ‘rose’ revolution. Earlier this year Saakashvili was under heavy internal pressure after he was accused of foul play in elections. If Russia is able to convince the Georgian public that it was Saakashvili and his entourage that started spilling blood, his position may become untenable. It is unlikely that Russia would be able to install a Kremlin puppet in Tbilisi with approval of the population. Nonetheless, Russia is still liable at this point to take the path of overthrowing Saakashvili.


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4. As the conflict develops the powerlessness of the UN, EU, NATO and the OSCE have been clearly revealed. With Russia holding a permanent seat in the Security Council including veto right, it makes the highest security organ irrelevant as long as war rages. The EU is trying to provide balanced reaction and thus lacks a certain resolve. The French Foreign Minister Kouchner (Presiding over the EU Council) and his Finish colleague Stubb, who is chairing the OSCE, are adopting a concerted approach by shuttling between Tbilisi and Moscow. It is likely that EU High Representative Solana is also working behind the scenes with Russian leaders to find a way out. It is only the US that has reacted in clear terms and is taking a leading role in urging Russia to stop its offensive. Concerted pressure on Russia that involves not only the US, EU, NATO, but also China and other powers, is needed at this stage. What is clear is that Georgia’s road to democracy (including NATO membership and ever increasing links with the EU) has been severely derailed and it is unlikely that the Georgia will get on the reform track any time soon.

After the Conflict:

1. Whatever the outcome of the conflict, both parties will have reached one initial objective. Georgia has been looking to change the status quo of the frozen conflicts – mediation format and negotiations – since Saakashvili came to power. After this war Russia can never be seen anymore as an impartial mediator. Although Russia will safeguard the South Ossetians who were given Russian passports over the last few years, there will be no international recognition of its mission. In terms of who can provide peacekeepers, it is possible that the UN could do this, together with an additional EU police force. However, it will be impossible for NATO to participate. Russia has obtained an objective in showing its military might and the decisiveness of its leadership to react swiftly. This fact can of course be an asset to Russia’s international status, as well as contribute to a further decline in international trust in Russia.

2. Relations between the EU, US and NATO, on the one hand, and Russia on the other, will be damaged severely. Russia’s display of power will be connected to earlier Kremlin power politics such as cutting energy deliveries, blocking developments in the Balkans and aggressive anti-western rhetoric. Russia might have crossed a line of what is acceptable; its aggressiveness will hurt its long-term interest in developing as an internationally respected power and successful and modern economy. It is unclear at what length western powers will go to shame and blame (and even punish) Russia, given that they lack the possibility to come to Georgia’s defence without being drawn in themselves. 

3. The current conflict prevention and early warning mechanisms have failed. Early warning (for instance by the International Crisis Group) of suspected preparations by Georgia to claim back lost territories by force have not been taken up by EU member states, the US and other international players. The United Nations that fulfils the main international mechanism in Abkhazia and the OSCE that fulfils a similar role in South Ossetia have completely failed in their core-tasks of early warning and conflict prevention. Talks within the UN regarding restructuring the Security Council will need to be carried forward as a matter of urgency and the members of the OSCE will need to drastically rethink the organisation, which has been troubled both by Russian obstruction of its human (rights?) dimension and western neglect of its security aspects.

4. The EU will need to act as one and decide if the Southern Caucasus is part of Europe (as is Russia) or if the region should be considered part of Russia’s backyard. What is the assistance and diplomatic orientated European Neighbourhood Policy worth in this new light? The energy interests in Georgia are substantial; the BTC oil pipeline and BTE gas pipeline that run from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey are essential to Europe’s energy security. In that sense neither the EU nor the US will be able to give up completely on Georgia. Another question that will need to be handled with decisiveness depending of the outcome (Russian occupation or independence of Georgia under the current leadership) is who will help rebuild South Ossetia and Georgia as a whole? Rebuilding Georgia and South Ossetia’s destroyed buildings and infrastructure will only be a minor part of a long term engagement in the Southern Caucasus that will take extensive international coordination and billions of euros and roubles. What is more, Georgia’s road to democracy (including NATO membership and ever increasing ties with the EU) has been severely disturbed and it seems unlikely that the Georgians will get on the reform track any time soon.

Whatever the outcome of this conflict we can conclude for now: that lives are lost by Georgian and Russian disregard for human life; international relations will not have been affected so severely as since 9/11; and Europe is not a continent where war has been eradicated.

Central Asia. South Caucasus. Eastern Europe. The Balkans. EU. NATO. OSCE. Security Sector Reform. Democratisation.

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Dear Friends and Colleagues,

FRIDE ceased its think tank activities on 31st December 2015 for economic reasons. The Board of Trustees had to take this difficult decision since, despite many efforts to diversify its funding sources, FRIDE cannot sustain its think tank operations with a view to 2016 and beyond.

Established in 1999, FRIDE has made a major contribution to shape debate on Europe’s external activities in an increasingly challenging international environment. It has covered issues ranging from democracy and human rights to sustainable development, new approaches to multilateral cooperation and security affairs. FRIDE’s long-standing focus on the extended neighbourhood of the European Union proves today all the more relevant given widespread turbulence in the region. FRIDE’s emphasis on the importance of the values framing Europe’s external activities is central to current political debates in Europe and beyond. This shows the need for continued engagement in the pursuit of a common European foreign policy that is both effective and informed by the core values of European integration.

The Board wishes to thank Diego Hidalgo, FRIDE’s founder, for his tireless commitment and very generous support for many years. The Board also wishes to thank FRIDE’s dedicated staff, the members of the Board and the Advisory Committee for their contribution in making FRIDE one of the top foreign policy think tanks in Europe. We are very grateful to all those who have supported FRIDE’s work and projects over the years and we thank the many partners from all parts of the world who have worked with FRIDE on joint initiatives. We hope that FRIDE’s extensive input to the debate on Europe in the world will continue to inform thinking and action at a very critical time for Europe’s future.

The President of the Board

FRIDE cesó sus actividades como think tank el 31 de diciembre de 2015 por razones económicas. El Patronato tuvo que adoptar esta difícil decisión dado que, a pesar de los intensos esfuerzos realizados para diversificar sus fuentes de financiación, FRIDE no puede sostener sus operaciones como think tank a partir de 2016.

Establecido en 1999, FRIDE ha realizado una gran contribución al debate sobre las actividades exteriores de Europa en un ambiente internacional cada vez más complejo. Ha trabajado en temas que van desde la democracia y los derechos humanos al desarrollo sostenible, los nuevos enfoques en la cooperación multilateral y las cuestiones de seguridad. La atención prestada por FRIDE a la vecindad extendida de la Unión Europea durante mucho tiempo prueba ser hoy aún más relevante debido a la turbulencia que azota a la región. El énfasis de FRIDE en la importancia de los valores que enmarcan las actividades exteriores europeas es central en los debates en Europa y más allá. Esto muestra la necesidad de un compromiso continuo con la búsqueda de una política exterior europea común que sea eficaz y esté basada en los principios fundamentales de la integración europea.

El Patronato desea agradecer a Diego Hidalgo, fundador de FRIDE, por su incansable compromiso y muy generoso apoyo a lo largo de tantos años. También quiere expresar su gratitud a la dedicada plantilla, a los propios miembros del Patronato y del Comité Asesor por sus contribuciones para hacer de FRIDE uno de los principales think tanks de Europa en cuestiones de política exterior. Estamos muy agradecidos con todos aquellos que han apoyado el trabajo y los proyectos de FRIDE a través de los años y también damos las gracias a los numerosos socios de todas partes del mundo que han colaborado con FRIDE en iniciativas conjuntas. Esperamos que las extensas aportaciones de FRIDE al debate sobre Europa en el mundo continuará informando el pensamiento y la acción en un momento muy crítico para el futuro de Europa.

El Presidente del Patronato

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