The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future

Ghia Nodia
15 August 2008

These words are being written when the Russian-Georgian war appeared to shift momentum from the escalation of 11 August 2008 to the announcement on 12 August of a halt to Russian military operations. It is too soon at the time of writing to say that this shift is genuine or definitive; nobody knows where things will stand even in a few hours' time. The terms of the deal to end the war proposed by Moscow, and discussed on 12 August by the French president with his Russian and French counterparts separately, suggest that this may only be the beginning of the end - if that.

It is even clearer that nobody can say at this stage what the long-term repercussions of the war will be. One thing is sure, however: after what has happened in these five days, the status quo ante cannot be fully restored - in Georgia itself, in Russian-American relations, or in Russian-European relations.

Ghia Nodia is minister of education and science of the Republic of Georgia. He was appointed to this post on 31 January 2008 He is also a scholar and adviser of the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) in Tbilisi. His books include (with Álvaro Pinto Scholtbach) The Political Landscape of Georgia: Political Parties: Achievements, Challenges, and Prospects (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

The forced choice

The war was unexpected and anticipated at the same time. No one foresaw exactly the way events were to unfold; but for months, diplomats and analysts had talked about the danger of a major Russian-Georgian conflict around one or both of Georgia's so-called "frozen conflicts" (in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia). At the same time, the real role of the frozen conflicts in triggering the fateful events of 8-12 August 2008 should neither be underestimate nor overestimated. True, without the unresolved status of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Russia and Georgia would not have gone to war. But, on the Russian side, the issue of South Ossetia in general - or of protection of the citizens of Russia residing there in particular - was just a pretext; and this became increasingly evident as the conflict unfolded.

As the international community moved towards stronger condemnation of the Russian aggression, the Georgian government was also under criticism for its alleged failure of judgment when the military attack to occupy Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's provincial capital, was ordered in the early morning of 8 August 2008. It looks like the Georgian government displayed political immaturity by falling into a Russian trap.

The context of that decision should be understood, however. For months, the Georgian forces inside the enclave within South Ossetia loyal to Tbilisi - as well as those forces across the de facto border - had been systematically attacked using artillery fire and other means. The obvious aim of this was to draw Georgia into an open military confrontation with Russia. Everybody on the Georgian side understood this very clearly, and all efforts were made to avoid such an outcome. However, by exerting this pressure, the Russians - through its puppet-regime in Tskhinvali - were putting the Georgian government into a lose-lose situation. Yes, engaging Russians in an open military confrontation was against Georgian interests. But, by helplessly watching how its citizens were systematically attacked and killed, the Georgian government was losing its credibility incrementally.

The escalation of violence in the days before 8 August demonstrated that what was on the Russians' mind was to wipe out the pro-Georgian enclave within South Ossetia, thus causing a serious humanitarian catastrophe. The news that, around midnignt on 8 August, a large column of Russian tanks entered South Ossetia from the north (and the pro-Georgian enclave is exactly on the main road between the Russian border and Tskhinvali) was the last straw: the decision to take control of Tskhinvali was a desperate attempt to pre-empt the large-scale Russian strike.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

Robert Parsons, "Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

Nikolaj Nielsen, "A small bomb in Gali" (8 July 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)
From the international public-relations perspective, it would probably have been smarter to allow Russia do whatever she was planning to do and wait for the international indignation afterwards. It is also easy to judge in hindsight. In the event, the Georgian government also felt that it had an obligation to do something to protect its citizens against an open attack. The Georgian government hoped that the Russians would not dare to conduct an undisguised all-out military aggression against Georgia, thus jeopardising its international image and relations with the international community. That did prove a miscalculation.

The true target

Perhaps the most telling illustration of what the Russians are doing in Georgia was something found found in the pocket of a Russian airman downed by the Georgian air defence: an obscene verse. The verse mocks the enemy - which is normal in wars. However, neither Georgians nor Ossetians are mentioned: the theme of this piece of doggerel was Russian troops humiliating Nato soldiers.

Whatever the humanitarian rhetoric, what Russia is really doing is a preventive strike against Nato, which happens to take place on Georgian territory. Moscow wants to teach Georgia a lesson for Tbilisi's open and defiant wish to become part of the west; it wants to send a message to the United States and Europe that it will not tolerate further encroachment on its zone of influence; and it wants to make clear to other countries in its neighbourhood (Ukraine first of all) that they are in Russia's backyard and should behave accordingly.

In Georgia proper, the main objective is regime change. At the United Nations Security Council meetings on 8-9 August 2008 convened at short notice to discuss the crisis, the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad revealed that the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was telling Condoleezza Rice that "(Mikheil) Saakashvili should go"; an indiscretion that provoked rage in his Russian counterpart, on the grounds that it betrayed the confidentiality of diplomatic conversations.

In strategic terms, the Russians want finally to consolidate their control over the separatist territories, and, most importantly, to have a pro-Russian regime in Georgia that would never again dare look in a westerly direction and try to become a western-style democracy. In domestic terms, this will be sold as a major victory over Nato, thus showing that the trend of Russia's humiliation after losing the cold war is broken.

Russia's claims that its forces are defending the Ossetian people from Georgian "genocide" are, in their mimicry of western humanitarian rhetoric, another manifestation of its resentment against the west. Russia took the Nato military operation against Serbia in 1999 as a personal affront; the Russian political elite and a majority of its public considered western talk of "humanitarian intervention" to protect Kosovar Albanians as a particularly cynical way to justify aggression motivated by geopolitical interests. Now Russia is settling scores: we all understand this humanitarian talk is bullshit (it hints to the west), but if you could do this in former Yugoslavia, you do not have any moral right to stop us from doing the same in our backyard.

The other war

Thus, on the global scale, this war poses serious questions to the west and to Georgia: for the west, whether it will accept its strategic retreat vis-à-vis Russia, and concede that the former Soviet Union is a territory where Russia can effectively dominate without formally restoring its erstwhile empire; for Georgia, whether it retains de facto sovereignty and effective statehood. The Russian calculation appears to be that Georgia will descend into chaos as its people express anger at their government for starting a wrong war and wrongly relying on the west, leaving Georgians with but one option: to embrace a new government that will be formally independent but effectively a Russian satellite.

It is uncertain even after Russia's announcement of a cessation of military action on 12 August 2008 that immediate hostilities have ended - to make possible what will come next, a messy political and diplomatic endgame involving Russia, Georgia, Europe, Nato and the west. Whenever that sequence of events happens, however, a moral war which is really at the core of things will continue in parallel. This is a war for the soul and identity of Georgia. Whatever the outcome in terms of territorial control or military-political arrangements, this war is one Georgia cannot afford to lose, and the west cannot afford to ignore.

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