The recent upsurge in tensions between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia neatly encapsulates the complex three-way relationship between Russia, its former Soviet satellites and the West. Worryingly, it also illustrates that Moscow is still quite prepared to use force, or the threat of it, in efforts to humble wayward neighbours and outfox NATO.
Abkhazia, along with South Ossetia, has been essentially independent from Tbilisi since a bloody civil war in the early 1990s. Russian peacekeepers under a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) mandate have been deployed there since 1994, though their neutrality has always been questionable. It became more so at the end of April when Moscow announced that around 1,000 extra peacekeepers would be sent to the region to help maintain peace and security in the light of recent tensions - although, unsurprisingly, the reinforcements themselves have hardly helped to calm things down.
The temperature has been increasing since the declaration of Kosovo’s independence in February, when, in retaliation, Russia threatened to recognise the breakaway Georgian provinces, especially if Georgia was given a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO at the Alliance’s summit in Bucharest. Although concerns by Germany, amongst others, led to the MAP being postponed, the Kremlin is still adamant that Georgia’s attempts to enter NATO will be as unpleasant as possible. On April 16 President Putin ordered diplomatic and economic ties with the separatist regions to be formalised, sparking outrage in Tbilisi. The shooting down of a Georgian drone, allegedly (and probably) by a Russian fighter on April 21st escalated the crisis, with both states claiming that the other is attempting a military solution to the crisis.
Amidst the uncertainty, one thing is assured - Russia does not have any realistic plans to declare the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Its deep concern over its own separatist Caucasus regions has ensured that. Instead, it is following a policy of ‘creeping annexation’ (Cornell & Smith 2008). One of the most transparently ingenious ruses (in a very Russian sort of way) that Moscow has deployed is widespread grants of passports to the Abkhaz over the last few years. Russia can thus help to justify its military presence as defending its citizens. As a Georgian official pointed out ( ‘Examining Moscow’s Motives’, 2008) this makes their claim to be ‘neutral’ peacekeepers untenable. The appointment of the head of the peacekeepers, a Russian, to the post of Abkhazian defence minister should also give pause to any Abkhaz who seriously expects independence (‘Russian Colonel’, 2008).
Georgia’s options, in response, appear limited. President Mikhail Saakashvili is already under fire from the opposition at home, and, with parliamentary elections coming up on May 21, “all political sides are also likely to capitalize on the crisis for election purposes” (Nilsson 2008 para.3). Saakashvili will have a hard time steering a course between beginning a full-scale war in the region on the one hand, and appearing to acquiesce in the permanent dismemberment of Georgian territory on the other. Undoubtedly Moscow’s timing was intended to complicate matters in the run-up to the election - a fractious or violent poll would cast doubt on Georgia’s democratic credentials and further hamper its NATO chances.
The military option is unlikely, despite Russian claims of a build-up by Georgian forces. Assuming the implausible scenario that Georgia is unable to overwhelm the Russian peacekeepers and the Abkhaz guerrilla forces, the use of force would do little except concern the West, harden Moscow’s resolve and stir up the ‘Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the North Caucasus’, an umbrella organisation of guerrilla groups who have threatened to intervene on behalf of Abkhazia if necessary (‘KGNK Warns Georgia’, 2008).
Seeking another way, Georgian politicians have embarked on a vigorous diplomatic drive, attempting to persuade the EU or NATO to replace Russian troops with Western peacekeeping forces. Given Europe’s divided approach to Georgian-Russian relations at Bucharest, and NATO states’ military overstretch in Afghanistan, the chance of a peacekeeping force being sent in the teeth of Russian opposition is, to put it optimistically, slim. Russia insists that the force is in place with the consent of both sides under the 1994 ceasefire agreement; Kommersant pointed out dubiously that, since Georgia had not officially asked for a termination to the mission, it continued to imply consent (‘NATO of Protest’, 2008). The more likely answer is that Georgia is working on the assumption that such a request will simply be denied.
Provided Russia can stick out the noises of concern and calls for restraint emerging from Brussels and Washington, and there is no reason to think it cannot, it will have secured a significant victory over Tbilisi. As Cornell and Smith note, the Bush Administration is nearly out of office and out of energy, and the presidential candidates will be far more focused on Iran and Iraq than on a relatively unknown area like Abkhazia. European complaints over Georgian territorial integrity can be shrugged off. Moscow has repeatedly shown a cavalier attitude to international law and peace when it comes to Tbilisi - occasional bombings, as in 2006, of Georgian territory; a trade embargo of Georgian products in the same year - and there is no reason to expect it to change now.
This is especially true since the Abkhaz question, if not entirely settled in Russia’s favour, is certainly approaching its endgame. A bolstered Russian ‘peacekeeping’ force will shield the process of integrating Abkhazia - legally, politically, militarily, and economically - into the Russian Federation. The peace process between Georgia and Abkhazia, never healthy at the best of times, is now more or less flat-lining. The Abkhaz now have no incentive to negotiate with Tbilisi and, although in time they may realise that they have entered something of a Faustian pact by using Russian assistance to divorce themselves from Georgia, for now there seems to be confidence that Georgia’s hopes of re-annexing the province are over (‘Renegade Abkhazia’, 2008).
Russia can be confident that Georgia has, in both domestic and international politics, suffered. Domestically, the Abkhaz situation has fuelled what was already a tense election into an event that could plausibly topple Saakashvili from power, or, at the least, weaken his position significantly. If this process entails a violent or chaotic election, then Georgia’s hopes of proving to the West that it is a responsible democracy will fade. Regardless of what happens at the election, the chances of a constructive dialogue with the West on NATO membership are dead in the water. For the West itself, its lack of any realistic leverage over Russian foreign policy towards the former Soviet Union is painfully clear. If we are indeed in a ‘New Cold War’, then Russia has won this particular skirmish.
‘Examining Moscow’s Motives in Georgia’s Frozen Conflicts’ (2008, April 18) RFE/RL. Retrieved 1/5/2008 from http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2008/04/cde04c1b-248c-4071-a409-4b4c71dd971f.html
‘KGNK Warns Georgia’ (2008, May 2) Georgia Times. Retrieved 2/5/2008 from http://www.geotimes.ge/index.php?m=home&newsid=10562
‘NATO Of Protest’ (2008, April 28) Kommersant. Retrieved 31/4/2008 from http://www.kommersant.com/p887483/r_527/The_possibility_of_a_military_conflict_between_Russia_and_Georgia/
Nilsson, Niklas (2008, April 30) ‘Unwelcome Crisis Ahead of Georgia’s Elections’ CACI-Analyst. Retrieved on 1/5/2008 from http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/4853
‘Renegade Abkhazia Welcomes Russian Troops’ (2008, May 01), AFP. Retrieved 1/5/2008 from http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5g7g8IQxmSMuAPFqp463oXlBeHN6A
‘Russian Colonel Appointed De Facto Defense Minister’(2008, April 30) The Georgian Times. Retrieved 1/5/2008 from http://www.geotimes.ge/index.php?m=home&newsid=10523
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