The world after the Russia-Georgia war

Rein Müllerson
15 September 2008

"It is not a battle of good against evil. It's a war between forces that are fighting for the balance of power, and, when that type of battle begins, it lasts longer than others - because Allah is on both sides." - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Rein Müllerson is professor and chair of international law at King's College, London. He has been a visiting professor at the LSE, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and (in 1991-92) first deputy foreign minister of Estonia.

Rein Müllerson is the author of seven books on international law and politics and more than 200 articles and reviews. His books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996) and Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007). It may well be that 8 August 2008 will come to signify less the opening date of the Beijing Olympics and more a crucial milestone in the evolution of international society, as important as the collapse of the Soviet Union or the fall of the Berlin wall - and overshadowing even 9/11. What is emerging may not be a new cold war, but it seems certain that fresh lines of division are emerging on the most vital security matters and that in consequence the role of various international organisations will have to change. While the "dragon" is still quietly and wisely gaining strength and enjoying its 8/8/o8 triumph, it has been the "bear" - surrounded by hunters and their hunting-dogs - that has shown its teeth and claws.

In order to understand events in the Caucasus in light of the war between Georgia and Russia of 8-12 August 2008 and its disputatious and still-violent aftermath, it is necessary to look beyond the history of the region (though that helps too), but to see it and its ongoing conflicts in a wider context: that of the new geopolitical struggle for the future of world order, including access to energy resources.

Such an approach may also show whether there are any more or less permanent and more or less satisfactory solutions to the conflicts in the Caucasus themselves. What is certain is that no quick fix is possible, and even in the case of an improbable scenario of all external powers (including Washington, Brussels and Moscow) sincerely agreeing on a single way to proceed, the grievances, perceptions and misperceptions of those closely, personally and emotionally involved will not in the foreseeable future allow for any outcome that would be equally acceptable for all.

The proximate causes of the Georgia-Russia conflict lie - as openDemocracy writers such as Neal Ascherson, George Hewitt, Donald Rayfield have explored - in the modern history of the region. They include the policies of leaders such as Joseph Stalin (who created the political context in which South Ossetia and Abkhazia became "problems" at all) and Zviad Gamsakhurdia (the first president of post-Soviet Georgia, whose nationalist policy helped drive these territories away from Georgian control). But the most important factor in today's situation is that the external actors (primarily Washington and Moscow) have their conflicting global and regional interests and they are, using legal terminology, acting as principals; while Georgian, Abkhazian and Ossetian leaders have to be seen as their agents, even though often having their own agendas and even trying to manipulate the principals. Sometimes indeed - with respect to Fred Halliday's argument in openDemocracy - the tail may wag the dog: though only on secondary matters and usually when the dog itself doesn't very much mind to be wagged (see Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations", 24 August 2008).

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, in one of his TV presentations, revealed - maybe inadvertently - that it was not Georgia and its territorial integrity that was at stake. Russia is not at war with Georgia but with the west, he claimed. In a way, it is so. However, this would also mean that in the Caucasus it is the west that is at war against Russia.

A changing world order

In the aftermath of 9/11, quite a few American and other western leaders sincerely believed that it was Islamist extremism and terrorism that constituted the most serious security challenge to the west as well as to the rest. Today, such perceptions belong to a great extent to the past.

An influential report published in 1998 conjured four scenarios - the "great game", the "clash of civilisations", the "coming anarchy" and the "end of history" (see Zalmay Khalilzad & Ian Lesser, Sources of Conflict in the 21st Century: Regional Futures and U.S. Strategy , RAND Corporation, 1998) The authors considered the last two scenarios less probable than the first two; they seemed to favour the great-game theory that would pitch the west (and first of all Washington) against China and Russia in a new great-power game. The Islamic threat was not seen as the most serious challenge to the United States. 9/11 may have changed these priorities, but only - as it may be turning out - for a while.

In that respect the argument made by Robert Kagan in September 2007 is suggestive: "The Islamists' struggle against the powerful and often impersonal forces of modernisation, capitalism and globalisation is a significant fact of life in the world today, but oddly this struggle between modernisation and traditionalism is largely a sideshow on the international stage. The future is more likely to be dominated by the ideological struggle among the great powers than by the effort of radical Islamists to restore an imagined past of piety" ("The world divides....and democracy is at bay", Times, 2 September 2007). This scenario raises a key dilemma: whether nations, which have different social and political systems and cultures, will work closely together in the face of common threats such as global warming, the shortage of energy resources, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism; or whether they will let differences in their domestic arrangements dominate their mutual relations.

Robert Kagan writes that "the future is more likely to be dominated by the ideological struggle among the great powers than by the effort of radical Islamists to restore an imagined past of piety". He advises that the US "should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals - perhaps a new league of democratic states to hold regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day". Kagan may well be right that such a configuration of world politics hangs on the horizon; indeed, such a new division of the world into hostile camps, if this is indeed what is now happening, is coming to fruition to a great extent due to the policies of those who follow Kagan's recipes (see Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest", 21 August 2008).

Laurence Jarvik, in an acute article mainly devoted to the role of western NGOs in central Asia comments on the two most probable scenarios sketched by Zalmay Khalilzad & Ian Lesser. He believes that the interests of the United States and the international community as a whole would be better served if Washington - instead of encouraging forces (including some NGOs) that undermine the stability of states whose domestic arrangements do not correspond to a liberal-democratic criteria - rather helped such states in their capacity-building (see Laurence Jarvik,"NGOs: A ‘New Class' in International Relations", Orbis, 51/2, Spring 2007).

To undermine the stability of states in the hope of making them allies in a new Great Power Game against the likes of China or Russia would create new hotspots of instability and terrorism. Michael Scheuer says that "the Bush administration's Cold War trait of preferring to fight and defeat nation-states immeasurably strengthened the much more dangerous transnational threat posed by the Sunni Islamists" (see Michael Scheuer, Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq, Free Press, 2008).

The problem is not that China and Russia are authoritarian and therefore don't behave like western democracies. Augusto Pinochet's Chile followed Washington's advice quite closely. The problem is that China and Russia, like rising India and potentially also Brazil or some other emerging centres of power, refuse to become assimilated into existing international power structures in terms over which they have no or have only little say. They may become "responsible stakeholders" in the international community - in the words of the former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick; if not on their own terms (a mission impossible), then at least on terms that would be negotiated between more or less equal partners.

Richard Sakwa writes that "a type of constrained adaptation [of Russia] to the international system emerged in which the strategic direction was clear - integration without accession (although in the long term accession is not excluded) - but the pace and forms of integration would remain of Russia's discretion" (see Richard Sakwa, "'New Cold War' or twenty years' crisis? Russia and international politics", International Affairs (84/2, 2008). Instead of the term "accession" I would use the term "assimilation". Russia, like China - but in contradistinction to smaller eastern and central European countries that are indeed trying to become more similar to western liberal democracies - refuses to be assimilated into the existing system. Boris Yeltsin's Russia, prompted by western advisers, tried such assimilatory policies but with rather disastrous consequences for its people. The problem is that what works, say, in the case of small states of eastern and central Europe may be completely alien for bigger countries with much bigger problems.

Moreover, as Richard Sakwa observes, "the international system today does not have a mechanism for integration of rising great powers" - whose terms of integration have to be negotiated, not dictated from Washington or Brussels. Amid the new and emerging realities, Russia has been making too much noise over important as well as not-so-important issues; whereas China has used a much wiser and more effective strategy of quiet resistance to the efforts of assimilation (be it over Tibet, Darfur, the exchange-rate of the renminbi or freedom of expression). This has permitted it, as Paul Rogers illustrates, to extend its commercial - and perhaps, in future, political - influence in other parts of the world without paying the price imposed on others (see Paul Rogers, "Iraq, Iran, China: the emerging axis", 4 September 2008).

Such different reactions to the outside world may be due in part to varying national-political characteristics. But they also may reflect the fact that Russian and western interests have come into starker conflict than Chinese and western interests, though there is no doubt who will be (or already is) the main competitor of the west. There is also room here, as Geoff Dyer points out, for the actions of one of Sakwa's "rising great powers" to have an influence on another in ways that will have an impact on the global system as a whole (see Geoff Dyer, "Russia could push China closer to the west", Financial Times, 27 August 2008).

Washington and its closest allies, having failed to integrate Russia by assimilating it - i.e. transforming it into a liberal-democratic market state that would follow the Washington consensus and join the America-led liberal world order - are now trying to contain Russia by expanding Nato to Georgia and Ukraine; planning to erect ballisitic-missile defences close to Russia's borders; and vying with Russia over the route of energy pipelines.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 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)

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

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

Ghia Nodia, The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 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)

Evgeny Morozov, "Citizen war-reporter? The Caucasus test" (18 August 2008)

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

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

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

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Fred Halliday, "The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

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

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

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war. An imaginative deafness

In these great (or rather mean) games of geopolitics the Abkhazians, Georgians, and Ossetians and some other small nations (as well as the more numerous Ukrainians) are mainly pawns whose lives and well-being can be sacrificed for the sake of a future political world order. These games are not about democracy in the Caucasus, about sovereignty or the territorial integrity of Georgia as the American leaders claim; neither are they about the "responsibility to protect" South Ossetians, as the Russians assert, though many of those making such claims may be quite sincere since a line between deception and self-deception is often quite fine.

I understand why one of the finest musicians of this century, Valery Gergiev, gave a concert amid the ruins of Tskhinvali destroyed by the Georgians. It was not because he is a friend of Vladimir Putin; it was because he is an Ossetian. I understand why the popular (in both Russia and Georgia) actor and singer Vakhtang Kikabidze sees faults only in Russia's policies; it was because he is a Georgian.

Ernest Gellner wrote that "the political effectiveness of national sentiment would be much impaired if nationalists had as fine a sensibility to the wrongs committed by their nation as they have to those committed against it" (see Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism [1983; John Wiley, 2006]). It is unfortunate that there aren't enough people who can become free of such a tribal mentality; often it takes a lot of intellectual effort, courage and emotional maturity to see the other side of the story. However, for those who aren't so personally and emotionally involved it is necessary to listen to both sides, including people such as Gergiev and Shevardnadze, without taking at face value what they are trying to tell or sell you.

A potent asymmetry

The principles of democracy and human rights, even sovereignty and territorial integrity, matter; but they can be promoted or protected not by repeating them as mantras when accusing one's opponents or adversaries of violating these values. In today's world, more than during calmer or more stable times, these values can be upheld by revealing the contradictory words and actions of political actors.

The Kremlin didn't rush to protect Kosovo Albanians when they were being suppressed by the Serbs. The White House didn't care about the territorial integrity of Serbia. On the contrary, Washington supported the administration of the province that led to its de facto independence. Moscow wouldn't have such an understanding of the independence aspirations of the Abkhazians and South Ossetians if Tbilisi were its friend and not an aspiring Nato member-state. Washington wouldn't have cared more about democracy in Georgia than in Papua New Guinea unless it was strategically so close to a resurgent Russia. Moreover, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline bypassing Russia meanders through Georgian territory.

The Kremlin's interest in the Ossetians and Abkhasians is mainly instrumental (see Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap", 19 August 2008). It was the shortsighted and rash policies of the first post-Soviet Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who used the slogan "Georgia for the Georgians"; it was the third, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose hard line towards these territories gave Russia an opportunity that serious players of geopolitical games rarely fail to miss. It is a fact that small nations are indeed used in global power-games.

An argument of force

It is clear that neither Russian nor Nato leaders accept such an analysis. The former are full of sacred indignation that their motives are considered even remotely similar to those of the perfidious Anglo-Saxons; while the latter resent being compared with the treacherous inheritors of Joseph Stalin (in both Georgia and Russia there are indeed too many people who revere the dictator).

However, the alternative to such a Machiavellian approach is often to act in a Hobbesian world - but as if it were in a Lockean one. Robert Kagan acknowledges that the peoples of the world still live and will continue to live in a world (so well analysed by Hans Morgenthau) where "nations consistently pursue interests defined as power"; though Kagan then makes an admirable intellectual somersault by claiming that (in contrast to Morgenthau) western democracies and especially the United States bring morality into international politics, and that ideology and regime-type matter (see Robert Kagan, "Power Play", Wall Street Journal, 30 August 2008).

Yes, they do matter, especially if in the context of western European so-called "postmodern" or post-Westphalian international relations; but caution is in order. Christopher Meyer more truthfully follows the realist tradition when he writes that he "would bet a sackful of roubles that Russian foreign policy would not be one jot different if it were a fully functioning democracy of the kind that we appear keen to spread around the globe" (see Christopher Meyer, "A return to 1815 is the way forward for Europe", Times, 2 September 2008).

Mature liberal democracies haven't - so far - fought each other, but they (and especially Washington) have used force against the rest more often than anybody else (see Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Times Books, 2007). Such uses of force have not always been in accordance with international law or morality. As Carl Schmitt wrote in the late 1920s: "When a state fights its political enemy in the name of humanity, it is not a war for the sake of humanity, but a war wherein a particular state seeks to usurp a universal concept against its military opponent. ... The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one can be reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat" (see Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, University of Chicago Press, 2007).

This observation is as true today as it was in the 1920s, and it has to be addressed to all the major players involved in the Caucasian conflicts.

A realistic reversal

What kind of steps in the Caucasus may be expected depends to a great extent on what kind of world the major powers - especially Washington - would prefer. If Washington believes that Russia cannot be a reliable partner for the west and therefore needs to be contained, then Georgia as well as Ukraine should be granted Nato membership as quickly as is realistic. To expel Russia from the G8 and/or to close its prospect of World Trade Organisation membership (as well as other measures) may be useful. Europe is too dependent on Russia's oil and gas for meaningful economic sanctions to be practical.

In such a case Russia would probably de jure include the Georgian breakaway territories in Russia and would try to stoke unrest in pro-Russian parts of Ukraine. The future of the Crimean peninsula will become an area of serious dispute, and it is doubtful that Russia will be prepared to vacate its fleet from Sevastopol when the twenty-year lease expires in 2017. Ukraine's entry into Nato would certainly precipitate a crisis over the Crimean peninsula and especially Sevastopol.

Russia remains unwilling to follow the Washington consensus and assertive in defending its economic and security interests (see Rein Müllerson, "The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West", Chinese Journal of International Law, 7/2 [May 2008]). But if the west (including the United States) believes that despite this Russia may still be a useful (or sometimes even indispensable) partner in resolving global concerns - such as religiously motivated terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global warming, or energy and food shortages - then it needs to pursue a different approach. True, politicians never recognise that they are taking u-turns even if they are turning back from a precipice. However, that is what is needed to avoid a further unpredictable escalation of the conflict in the Caucasus as well as tension in the world as a whole.

A time for patience

By formally recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia acted as rashly as those western states which recognised Kosovo; both sides thus further opened the Pandora's box of territorial disputes. The Kremlin's decision involved two big mistakes. First, Moscow cannot now expect support from many of the states which otherwise would have understood or even welcomed Russia's grandstanding against Nato. China, India and a host of other states are extremely nervous about any encouragement their "own" minorities may have for independence claims.

In this light, vacuous claims by some politicians that the recognition of new states - Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia for example - is both completely different in each case and doesn't create precedents are wrong in the Caucasus and the Balkans alike. Differences, or parallels for that matter, are in the eye of the beholder. The tepid support given to Russia at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Bishkek only proves that, if any proof was needed.

Second, having recognised these entities the Kremlin has played its trump- cards. It would have been in Russia's interest to keep these cards close, threaten to use them, but never actually throw them on the table. This may sound rather Machiavellian but it is both a better and a more honest assessment of the situation than believing in the crocodile-tears the Kremlin is shedding over the plight of the Ossetians or Abkhazians or Washington over the fate of the Georgians or Ukrainians.

What is needed now is that all the sides have to tone down the rhetoric. After that, small practical steps may be beneficial. Russia's actions have to be reciprocated by the west. It is clear that Nato cannot immediately revert over its policy of enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine. However, putting brakes on this process instead of precipitating it would be wise. Russia understands that it doesn't need these breakaway republics; what it needs is a friendly Georgia. However, such a Georgia can evolve only if Washington ceases to use this country for the purpose of encirclement and containment of Russia.

In facing global challenges Russia - even one that pursues her own interests, which sometimes inevitably differ from western preferences - is a much more important partner for the west than Georgia. This is especially true if the global "war on terror" were indeed one of the most crucial issues. Georgia, or Ukraine for that matter, are more important partners than Russia only if Russia is seen as an enemy (or at least a potential one) and not as a partner (at least a potential one).

This in no way means that the west has to sacrifice these or other small, states for the sake of the partnership with Russia. These nations would only benefit from cooperative relationships between Russia and western democracies as well as from their own cooperation with both Russia and the west. To force or encourage smaller Russian neighbours to take sides - you are either with us or against us - is a policy that is highly detrimental for such states. Moreover, it doesn't matter whether the culprit is Russia (which too actively supports so-called pro-Russian politicians) or the west (which sponsors pro-western leaders). In either case, the people suffer even if their leaders may flourish.

As one of the immediate measures, Georgia should be persuaded to sign "non-use-of-force" agreements with its breakaway territories. Later, other cooperative steps may be possible. If Georgia is ever to regain these territories it would be only through establishing lasting friendly relations with Russia. Neither will happen soon. Therefore, patience is needed. Here, once again, more may be learned from the Chinese than from the Georgians, Russians or Americans.

A veil of deception

As a professor of international law I may be expected to evaluate the situation in the light of international law. I could do that, but this would squander my own and the reader's precious time. Why? Because of the very way that those directly involved in the Caucasian conflicts - as well as those who support or strongly sympathise with either side - are using the terminology of international law (aggression, occupation, genocide, racial discrimination, territorial integrity, peace enforcement, humanitarian mission, sanctity of treaties) without any constraint, with such gusto, with such self-righteous indignation, with such self-confidence that not only journalists but even poets would envy them.

In this situation - in my humble expert opinion - one task of an international-law scholar is to try to lift the abusive veil of legal terminology in order to glimpse the interests it is meant to conceal. It is only by exposing deception and self-deception that it will become possible to reverse the dangerous trend towards a new superpower confrontation; one for which, in contrast to the earlier, ideological grounds are lacking and differences of pragmatic interests may be outweighed by common threats and challenges.

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