The Russia-Georgia war: mission unaccomplished

Ghia Nodia
17 August 2009

The true result of the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 may be in striking contrast to what people felt and thought during the war or in its aftermath: namely, that the war did not bring any dramatic change either in the region or globally. This, however, is also ground for concern: it means that the objectives for which the war was fought were not achieved, and in consequence there is the danger of a renewed bout of fighting.

Ghia Nodia is the director of the International School for Caucasus Studies in Ilia Chavchavadze State University, and chairman of the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD) in Tbilisi. He was minister of education and science of the Republic of Georgia in 2008. His books include (with Álvaro Pinto Scholtbach) The Political Landscape of Georgia: Political Parties: Achievements, Challenges, and Prospects (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Also by Ghia Nodia in openDemocracy:

"The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

"Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

This fact helps to explain a number of recent events and trends: why many analysts (Russian, Georgian and international alike) pondered the threat of a new war in early and mid-2009; why Russian-Georgian relations became a conspicuous theme in the Dmitry Medvedev-Barack Obama meeting on 6 July 2009; why as the war's anniversary neared in early August, some mysterious armed encounters on the South Ossetia-Georgia border prompted President Obama to call his Russian counterpart again, to make sure this was not the start of another Russian invasion.

At the same time, the war naturally did have real effects and create an altered picture. A stock-taking exercise is therefore important. Ivan Krastev and Donald Rayfield are among those who have undertaken this in openDemocracy around the war's anniversary, but my emphasis and conclusions will be somewhat different.

The ambiguous context

The important and probably long-term results of the August 2008 war relate to Georgia's breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had been beyond Tbilisi's authority since the conflicts of the early 1990s. Before the war, Russia formally recognised these provinces as part of Georgia and served as the principal peacekeeping force. In effect, however, Russia was the chief and only protector of the separatist regimes.

As the west started moving towards the idea of recognising Kosovo's independence - which became reality after the declaration of 17 February 2008 - Russian leaders promised to respond by doing something similar in "its" neighbourhood. The Georgian government did not trust Russia as an impartial peacekeeper and sought its replacement by international forces, but for the time being it followed western advice to formally accept Russia's role and not to destabilise the situation.

In strict territorial terms, Russian-Abkhazian or Russian-Ossetian control over the provinces was not complete. Georgia still controlled the mountainous Kodori  valley inside Abkhazia, an area which could serve as a strategic outpost in the event of new hostilities. A pro-Georgian administration also governed a substantial Georgian-populated enclave inside South Ossetia, and on the main road between the regional capital Tskhinvali and the Russian border. This lack of consolidation made the separatist administrations rather nervous.

The result was that the two contested areas were part of an ambiguous and unstable overall situation. The authorities in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali were concerned about the continued existence of Georgian enclaves that denied them the feeling of being wholly in charge of their respective territories. But these very enclaves constituted points of vulnerability for the Georgian side as well: the government in Tbilisi feared that a military move against one or both of them could become the trigger of a new war (as, in the event, actually happened).

A further layer of ambiguity reflected both this control of parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Georgian government, and the at least formal recognition by Russia that the two regions belonged to Georgia. These facts helped create an illusion in Tbilisi (shared by much of the international community) that some progress in solving the conflicts could be reached within the foreseeable future. As late as Georgia's double-election (presidential and parliamentary) of January-May 2008, Mikheil Saakashvili's high-profile campaign rhetoric pledged to bring the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia to an end. The illusion and the rhetoric proved to be important miscalculations by Saakashvili's government, in part too because they later allowed Russia to cultivate the lasting impression that this government was responsible for the outbreak of the war in August 2008.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Georgian politics and the region, including the war of August 2008:

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)

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

Donald Rayfield, "Russia vs 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)

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

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia, again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia on the brink - again" (20 May 2009)

Nino Burdzhanadze, "A Georgian appeal: open letter to the west" (12 June 2009)

Ilia Roubanis, "Georgia's pluralistic feudalism: a frontline report" (3 July 2009)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia: between war and a future" (8 July 2009)

Robert Parsons, "Georgia: social chasm, political bridge" (21 July 2009)

Ivan Krastev, "The guns of August: non-event with consequences" (30 July 2009)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia war, a year on" (6 August 2009)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on" (11 August 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports and analysesThe reality and the dream

The war removed these ambiguities. The Georgian enclaves no longer exist; the internally-displaced people from them (26,000 people) now live in hastily built settlements in Georgia proper. Military control is established over the whole territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (including, in the latter case, the district of Akhalgori, which was mainly populated as well as controlled by Georgians before the war and had never been an arena of the conflict). The separatist authorities can now feel secure - at least from the Georgian side.

The independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was recognised by Russia on 26 August 2008 (in which it has to date been followed only by Nicaragua). A series of bilateral treaties with the two new states put Russia in charge of their security; Russian vetoes at the United Nations Security Council led to the removal of the United Nations and OSCE observers from them. In effect, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now military-strategic satellites of Russia, a status confirmed by the visit of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin to Sukhumi on 12 August 2009 and his announcement of $480-million worth of military investment in Abkhazia. 

Even before the war, the territories served as Russia's strategic outposts in the south Caucasus, a reality that to an extent was disguised  by Russia's peacekeeping status and the presence of international monitors. Now everything is obvious and official, and Russia can extend its military power in both regions without restraint. Russia's most conspicuous gains from the war are evident here. How exactly is it going to use these assets, is another question.

The view is frequently heard that as a result of the war, Georgia's hopes of regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia are shattered: the two territories are now lost for good (see George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a year on", 12 August 2009). True, the war was a huge humanitarian disaster, and the further loss of the Georgian enclaves was a great psychological trauma. However, it would be correct to say that what Georgia lost was more illusion than territory or military control.

The Russian attitude always meant that Georgia on its own could have done little or nothing to solve the conflict, though it was difficult to say that aloud. Georgia has now gained greater certainty. In that sense, the main result of the war is the clearer demarcation of the sides - thus making both conflicts more closely resemble the Cyprus model. The government in Tbilisi no longer has serious business with Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the destruction of the ethnic Georgian enclaves, whose protection was at once a patriotic obligation, a strategic imperative, a serious drain on resources (economic, military and political), and a constant source of instability.

At the same time, the Georgian public and government maintain their commitment to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The proportion of citizens who consider recognition of their independence by Georgia an acceptable option has not been changed by the war: it hovers around 2%-4%. The attitude of the international community is reinforcement here: all major powers have stated that will not recognise the Russian satellites' independence. In that sense, the "Georgian dream" is intact - though still very much a dream. What has changed is that the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia per se are effectively off the table in Georgia's ongoing political argument: they have become just part of relations with Russia. In regard to the latter, the really dominant concern is the defence of Georgian sovereignty.

The Tbilisi reaction

Most analysts believe that the real reason for the Russian invasion was to reestablish its power in its southern tier. Moscow wanted to teach a lesson to both its former satellites and the west: Russian power is back; erstwhile colonies who do not behave will be punished; Europe and the United States should treat the newly empowered Russia with the respect it deserves.

Here, the results of the war were totally inconclusive. From the limited exertion of overwhelming force, Russia did not achieve any of its broader goals. But this failure, and the fact that it also paid such a small price for its military actions, creates the possibility that it will take further aggressive steps in the region.

The most conspicuous indicator of Russia's failure is that Mikheil Saakashvili remains Georgia's president. The main obstacle in the way of Russia's effort to reforge its sphere of influence within the former borders of the Soviet Union was Georgia's quest to join Nato and the European Union; regime-change in Georgia could solve that problem. It is still unclear why then Russia did not go the whole way once it started - was it deterred by Nicolas Sarkozy's mediation, George W Bush's deployment of warships to the Black Sea, or something else? Perhaps the calculation was the sense that occupying Tbilisi and controlling the whole of Georgia would become too much of a mess, whereas the existing scale of Saakashvili's defeat and humiliation would be enough for him to be forced out of power by Georgians themselves (see "Russian war and Georgian democracy", 22 August 2008).

If such was Moscow's hope, it did not materialise. Georgia's state institutions did not disintegrate in the face of Russian aggression. The government showed considerable effectiveness in dealing with the humanitarian problems caused by the war; by the beginning of winter, all new internally-displaced people who could not go back to their home villages had been housed. The economy suffered, but showed resilience as well - thanks also to United States and European aid-packages.

The Georgian opposition launched a political offensive in spring 2009, mainly via protest-rallies that demanded President Saakashvili's resignation and refused to accept anything less. The opposition drew strength from the belief that the result of the war - and the change of administration in Washington,  where Mikheil Saakashvili was seen by many as George W Bush's client - would so weaken the president that he would submit to internal pressure. These expectations too proved wrong (see Robert Parsons, "Georgia: social chasm, political bridge", 21 July 2009).

Most Georgians blamed Russia rather than their own government for provoking the war, and were not impressed by a divided and incoherent opposition that was unable to propose any constructive ideas. The street-protests were large but not immense, while the west was alienated by the opposition's excessive radicalism and immaturity.

The multiple appeals to the international community by public intellectuals and political figures, some of them published in openDemocracy, have had an uncertain effect (see Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalk circle: open letter to the west" [12 May 2009] and Nino Burdzhanadze, "A Georgian appeal: open letter to the west" [12 June 2009]). A year after the war, Mikheil Saakashvili is as firmly in charge - and as defiant of Russia - as he was before.

The road to nowhere

There is wider international evidence of the gap between Russia's intentions and its achievements in the August 2008 war. There are seven indicators of this.

First, it is often said that the war thwarted Georgia's Nato ambitions, and thus can be accounted a Russian success. This is to a degree true - it is obvious that the environment for Georgia's accession to Nato has become even worse - but contains an exaggeration. Georgian aspirations to get a fast-track ride to Nato membership had already been repudiated at the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008. The decision of the summit to deny Georgia a Membership Action Plan - yet to commit to eventual membership once "Georgia is ready" - meant that the project was redefined as long-term but not totally hopeless. So it remains, unchanged by the war.

Second, the US-Georgian "charter on strategic partnership" signed in January 2009 - one of the Bush administration's last diplomatic projects - can be regarded as an outcome of the war. It appears the Barack Obama administration has still to figure out what strategic cooperation with Georgia will mean in practice - whereas Georgia itself evidently will want close ties as possible. The American vice-president Joe Biden's strong language in support of Georgia and in criticism of Russia during his visit to Tbilisi on 22-23 July 2009 is at least a rhetorical confirmation of firm US support and repudiation of Russian claims.

Third, Russia's neighbours have refused to be intimidated by the war in the way that Moscow expected. True, there were initial signs of such effects on some post-Soviet states in Russia's neighbourhood, for example when in February 2009 the Kyrgyz government ordered the evacuation of the United States military base in Manas. In June, a new agreement was ratified that allowed US forces to retain its presence and establish a transit centre at Manas airport.

More disturbingly, even traditional allies wavered. It was anticipated that Belarus would soon recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This did not happen; Belarus's ruler Alexander Lukashenko is increasingly seeking to balance his relations with Russia by cultivating better relations with the west. Armenia, the most loyal ally of Moscow in the Caucasus, rewarded Saakashvili with an official medal of honour during his visit to Yerevan - as if deliberately sending a message to Moscow. Moscow's effort to create a military arm of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) - a Russian-dominated alliance of a cluster of post-Soviet states - has faced resistance from Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Fourth, the construction of the Nabucco gas pipeline intended to take Caspian gas directly through Georgia to Europe (that is, without crossing any Russian land) was expected to be another casualty of the August war. Moscow did indeed exert pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan not to cooperate with Nabucco, which would have killed the project. This failed: Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan (notwithstanding the oil-field dispute between them) gave preference to cooperation with Europe, and the deal was signed on 13 July 2009.

Fifth, the European Union and the United States were criticised for their feeble response to the Russian bombardments and incursions of August 2008. It is true that the EU-Russia and the Nato-Russia cooperation formats were suspended in response to the war, but - even in the absence of Russian compliance with the six-point ceasefire agreement - both were soon reactivated. Similarly, the US proposal to "reset" relations with Russia could be cited as evidence that Russia got away with its military adventure. In a way it did: the west has no power to force Russia to backtrack on the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and abandon military control over them. Yet if Moscow's real objective was to force the west to respect Russia's "special interests" (in effect, separate zones of influence) in its "near abroad", then this too did not work.

Sixth, the European Union's launch of its new Eastern Partnership with six post-Soviet countries - as well as the acceleration of the Nabucco project - can be considered EU responses to Russia's war effort. Both infuriated Russia. If the Eastern Partnership is still a vague idea, it does clearly indicate that the union refuses to acknowledge any exclusive Russian zone of influence in its neighbourhood.

Seventh, Turkey's growing ambitions are a by-product of the August war. Even in its immediate aftermath, Ankara saw an opportunity to propose the joint pursuit with Moscow of a "stability and cooperation platform". A more active role in the Caucasus would fit neatly into the "multi-dimensional" foreign policy championed by Turkey's foreign minister (since May 2009), Ahmet Davutoglu. The initiative with Russia has hardly progressed, but Turkey has sought progress in its difficult relations with Armenia. Any substantial movement in this field would bring real change to the region, but hardly to Russia's advantage.

The result and the danger

This balance-sheet of the war may be summarised as follows:

* Russia won militarily but lost politically

* Georgia lost militarily but did not lose politically

* the United States suffered a crisis of credibility as it could not defend its friend (or client, as some would say), and needs to restore this credibility after the "reset"

* the European Union demonstrated its habitual divisions and inability to act in a resolute and consistent manner - but it also became more engaged in the region

* Turkey sensed new possibilities to enhance its profile in the region, but has yet to achieve anything tangible.

The effect of the war, to reinforce the point made at the outset of this article, is less that the overall picture in the region changed (save for the impact on territories and people) than that perceptions of reality altered as eyes were opened. Most importantly, the outcome confirmed what many had only suspected: that Russia is a revisionist power which considers Nato and the European Union to be its enemies, can act dangerously in defiance of the international order, and can rely on the west not to respond adequately to such a challenge (see Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap", 19 August 2008).

There is also, however, a certain resistance to recognising this reality - probably because that would make life even more difficult. Such ambiguities in assessing the war and its results imply - again, to echo the point in the first paragraph above - that the danger of another war exists.

There are at least two reasons why it should not happen. Russia is unlikely next time to have a pretext of the kind it invoked in August 2008; in part because of the presence of the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia, a very important preventive institution (as the anniversary neared, the mission refuted Russian claims about a Georgian military build-up). Moreover, even if Russia used its military might to overcome the Georgian army and proved correct in assuming that the west will not come to Georgia's aid, the experience of August 2008 suggests no guarantees that the political consequences would be any easier.

These considerations make most analysts think that a new Russian assault is unlikely, though it cannot be excluded altogether. What Georgians do fear is that Russia will continue to blackmail Georgia with threats and use any chance to destabilise it. That danger certainly persists, and Russia may reasonably hope it can succeed in these aims. This means Georgia should take stock of its vulnerabilities and protect itself as far as it can.

In a longer-term perspective, the conflict can be resolved only by Russia's recognition of Georgia's effective sovereignty (including Georgia's right to seek friends that it wants to have) or by Georgia's acceptance of the status of a Russian satellite. There are no signs of either outcome on the horizon. Therefore, the conflict continues.

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