Skip to content

What to Expect from the Georgia-Russia Crisis

South Ossetia might well become Georgia's Chechnya. And the European Union might be the best-placed conflict manager in the South Caucasus, concludes Professor Stefan Wolff from the University of Nottingham in this guest article for Atlantic Review:

As fighting in the separatist region of South Ossetia in Georgia escalates, with Russian air force attacking military targets inside Georgia and Abkhazian rebels in another break-away region of Georgia launching attacks against Georgian military installations, the South Caucasus seems on the brink of a major military confrontation between Georgia and Russia and its allies. The current hostilities are the culmination so far of increasing belligerence on all sides over the past 4 years. With both conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia unresolved but quiet since the early 1990s, it was only when current Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in 2004 that things began to heat up.

To be sure, Georgia has a right to have its sovereignty and territorial integrity respected and an autonomy plan for South Ossetia proposed by Saakashvili in 2005 was generous by any international standards, but fell, of course, short of South Ossetian demands for independence (and possibly subsequent unification with Russia).

The roots of this conflict, however, reach back much farther in history. Ossetians were always considered among the few of the Caucasus peoples loyal to Russia--the Tsar, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia. They live on both sides of the current border between Russia and Georgia. Those who ended up in an independent Georgia in 1991, saw their identity, language, and traditions threatened by an aggressively nationalist Georgian state. Backed by Russia, they launched an insurgency with the express aim of seceding from Georgia. A ceasefire and interim agreement brokered with OSCE help, saw the introduction of CIS peacekeepers in the region, predominantly made up of Russian troops. In the decade-and-a-half since few, if any, of the approximately 70,000 Georgian refugees from South Ossetia have been able to return to their homes, and neither have those 70,000 South Ossetians who fled from Georgia either to South Ossetia or onward across the border to the Russian region of North Ossetia. Under the auspices of the so-called Joint Control Commission, talks and negotiations have been ongoing ever since the end of the war, but with no concrete results even remotely resembling what could be an acceptable compromise to all sides, including Russia.

As the current escalation of military hostilities has put the likelihood of a sustainable settlement off even further, the question is about what the likely outcomes are of the current crisis. While Russia has vowed to defend its citizens and fulfil its peacekeeping mandate (not one approved by the UN, one should hasten to add), it is unlikely that Russia will allow itself be dragged into a full-blown war with Georgia. This would also be rather difficult logistically. There is only one major transport route to South Ossetia from Russia, mountain passes are impossible to cross from about October to May, and there are, so far, no suitable airports inside South Ossetia to cope with a massive Russian troop deployment to the region. On the other hand, Russia's air force is quite capable of engaging the Georgian military, providing back up for its peacekeepers and for South Ossetian forces. This comes at a price (two jets have already been brought down by Georgian air defenses), but it would be enough to deny the Georgians anything close to a victory.

Even without prolonged direct Russian involvement, the prospects of a Georgian victory are remote. Even though the Georgian military has benefited from years of a US-sponsored train-and-equip programs, and has a much more capable fighting force than back in the early 1990s, the mountainous, thinly populated terrain of South Ossetia is not the ground on which a regular military can win against local guerrillas, especially not if they are backed by Russia. Georgia's announcement that will recall at least half of its current troop contingent in Iraq is also an ominous sign of Georgian overstretch in the light of a much more robust Russian response than Georgia may have bargained for. South Ossetia might well become Georgia's Chechnya. The apparent near-total destruction of the regional capital, Tskhinvali, already reminds one of the fate of Grozny in the second Russo-Chechen war in the late 1990s.

So, the most likely outcome in the near future, but probably not after some more blood-letting and civilian suffering, is an internationally brokered ceasefire and withdrawal of both sides to the status quo ante, however that may eventually be defined. This, of course, is only a short-term solution, and moreover not one that will be very stable as low-level hostilities are likely to continue as they did over the past several years. At the same time, Georgia, Russia and the Ossetians will not be able to find a lasting solution themselves. They have tried for many years, with different degrees of sincerity, and failed, so there is a clear need for international mediation.

Any possible settlement will require all sides to make compromises, it will need some innovative thinking on the part of the mediators, and it must offer international guarantees that a deal will stick. With the OSCE likely to be paralyzed between pro- and anti-Russian camps, and the US heading for an all-important presidential election, the EU, which has a particular interest in the region and has made a long-term commitment to it with its inclusion in the European Neighborhood Policy and the appointment of a Special Representative, might be the best-placed player to step up to this challenge and may well prove its worth as an aspiring global conflict manager in the South Caucasus. This does not mean that the EU could, or even should, do this alone, but it needs to take the lead in managing this crisis, liaising closely with all other players and using its increasing weight, and strategic interests, in the region to prevent another war in the Caucasus.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution at the University of Nottingham.  He has authored and edited several books and essays on ethnic conflict, of which you can find more information at his website.

His last article for Atlantic Review was Where Next for Serbia?


Related posts on Atlantic Review:

War in the Caucasus (already more than 160 comments)

Georgia Conflict: Should NATO Marry the Small Kid on the Playground? (41 comments)


No Trackbacks


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

Marie-Claude on :

Allow Ossetia being an autonomus land like it was during URSS legation as for auronomus lands in EU, ie Basques, Catalans...

SC on :

So far, Russia has rejected calls for a ceasefire and it appears as if they are not discouraging Abkhazia from taking advantage of the current situation. This doesn't suggest an immediate concern with tamping down regional hostilities, much less inviting the good offices of EU or others. The problem is that of time. Others are watching and calculating. I wonder if Moldova and its Transnistria troubles offers any lessons or concerns.

SC on :

Hmmm . . . seems that Transdniestria is now feeling its oats in the wake of the Russian move into Georgia: Looks like the OSCE will have plenty to do in the coming months.

Reid of America on :

Europe can easily bring Russia to it's knees. All they have to do is boycott Russian oil and gas exports. Soft power is a euphemism for weakness.

Marie-Claude on :

Reid, the problem there is to discern wich one is the les sevil, can't see they are different ; now saving the appearences of a peace agreement will more likely occur ; that's Kouchner's job, and he is is good at it

SC on :

The following article in the March/April 2008 volume of Foreign Affairs by J.Z. Mueller, titled "Us and Them" might be worth a read about now. I believe it is available to all and not behind a subscription wall. Summary: Americans generally belittle the role of ethnic nationalism in politics. But in fact, it corresponds to some enduring propensities of the human spirit, it is galvanized by modernization, and in one form or another, it will drive global politics for generations to come. Once ethnic nationalism has captured the imagination of groups in a multiethnic society, ethnic disaggregation or partition is often the least bad answer. JERRY Z. MULLER is Professor of History at the Catholic University of America. His most recent book is The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought.

Don S on :

Ossetia Georgia's Chechnya? Possibly. If Russia had been ejected from Chechnya in a matter of hours by an opponent with 40 times the power. Space Aliens perhaps? ;) Russia is swatting Georgia out of Ossetia like a fly. Next step is to install a new government in Georgia more to Russia's liking. And perhaps a new Gerogian national anthem. I think the Beatles 'Back in the USSR' would be a perfect choice.....

SC on :

In that sense it's ironic to read that Russian units with experience in Chechnya have moved into South Ossetia. Keep your eye on Abkhazia - the next shoe to drop. Seems to me they could use some fraternal assistance as well, given that there are Georgian troops in control of the Kodori gorge. Oh . . . but, I forgot, Abkhazia and Kodori is recognized by the international community as part of Georgia, and that larger community, of course, respects the territorial integrity of Georgia. So, forget my little comment about Abkhazia, nothing to concern yourself there.

Don S on :

Being a little arch here, SC? I'm feeling that way myself. This is being cast by most of the European press as an act of agression by the Georgian president, notwithstanding that Georgia is defending it's own internationally-recognized borders. Errrr, what they THOUGHT were Georgia's internationally recognized borders. It turns out that the True borders are effectively - anything Russia says. Signed treaties clearly agreeing where the line was meant - nothing. Russia may say that it's not at war with Georgia - but which country has invaded the other? I think Putin's clear message is that the countries which were once SSR's of the USSR (Balts, Georgia, Ukraine, and various 'stans) should regard themselves not as independent nation-states - but rather client states of the Russian empire. I think a similar message is going out to the old Warsaw Pact countries as well. Once controlled by Russia - always controlled by Russia. BTW, the Russian air force apparently is shooting at that oil pipeline running across Georgia. Competitors apparently are not welcome. Europe had best look to it's energy dependence on Russia - which may be a few lucky hits from becoming a LOT deeper....

SC on :

Ohhhh Don, like Pat Patterson, I see that you too are an old dinosaur that believes that scribbles on paper and lines on maps should deter the aspirations of peoples to be as one. Whatever are we to do with you two. This evening on Public Broadcasting's evening television news program, I watched the Russian ambassador presenting without significant challenge the view that Russians have been victimized by the Georgians. Wonderful theater right down the arch implications that Sarkozy has implied American involvement with Saakashvili's decision assert control of South Ossetia. Great stuff. And as I said, he was never seriously challenged or questioned on terminology, or rather obvious verbal sleight of hand. Everything you expect from interviewer and interviewee. This was followed by an exchange between Holbrooke and Simes which was hilarious because Holbrooke was pretty tough - though ever the diplomat - and savvy enough to question Simes' adoption of aspects of the Russian line: for example, the entire Russian operation is a matter of peacekeeping; that there are no Russian troops in Georgia, which at the very least redraws the map in the process (but of course Holbrooke is an old dinosaur too, I guess); etc.. Interestingly neither recommended bending to the Russian will that Saakashvilli be forced to step down - leave it to the democratic process: which assumes one is left, I guess. Holbrooke asserted his belief that Russians had been planning this for quite some time. I liked his description of Saakashvilli as being "sucker-punched". But you should expect this from a Bush administration apologist. ;) Sooooo . . . I'm shocked, shocked, I tell you, to learn of the European reaction you report. :)

Pat Patterson on :

Well, putting on Holbrooke to comment on the Russian actions might be seen by the Russians as a provocation. Whenever his name comes up on any forum where there are Serbs or Russians commenting, most recently at Michael Totten's, then I learn a whole bunch of new adjectives and nouns and a few new adverbs as well. I do expect that you will now receive a very sharp note from Amb. Holbrooke for the "Bush... apologist" crack. I return the favor; nasty!

SC on :

Language studies can be entertaining, can't they. As for Holbrooke: thank you, thank you. Here's one happy thought for the evening - one that even directly involves NATO and Russia: Given Russia's ongoing success in liberating and rescuing its fraternal partners in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia (didn't know there so many, many Russians in Abkhazia - well, sorry of course there are - now) perhaps Serbia and Russia will together will now seek to redress the grievous injustices done to their fraternal interests in northern Kosovo. Just a thought. Ambassador Holbrooke, your legacy is calling.

Pat Patterson on :

Or Alaska or Northern California? Nah, even San Francisco doesn't deserve that fate.

Marie-Claude on :

an US Versailles traitee there ? But Clinton and his advisers, frustrated with Russian defiance in the Balkans and the removal of reformers from key posts in Moscow, ignored this overture. They increasingly saw Russia not as a potential partner but as a nostalgic, dysfunctional, financially weak power at whose expense the United States should make whatever gains it could. Thus they sought to cement the results of the Soviet Union's disintegration by bringing as many post-Soviet states as possible under Washington's wing. They pressed Georgia to participate in building the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, running from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and bypassing Russia. They encouraged Georgia's opportunistic president, Eduard Shevardnadze, to seek NATO membership and urged U.S. embassies in Central Asia to work against Russian influence in the region. Finally, they dismissed Putin's call for U.S.-Russian counterterrorist collaboration as desperate neoimperialism and an attempt to reestablish Russia's waning influence in Central Asia. What the Clinton administration did not appreciate, however, was that it was also giving away a historic opportunity to put al Qaeda and the Taliban on the defensive, destroy their bases, and potentially disrupt their ability to launch major operations. Only after nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens were killed on September 11, 2001, did this cooperation finally begin. "Next step is to install a new government in Georgia more to Russia's liking" I am afraid that this is more likely to happen

SC on :

Simes' article is well worth the read.

SC on :

Professor Wolff, Your article is a very nice summary of the issues. To this point, the conflict is moving much as you anticipated. Would share any follow up thoughts, insights in light of the developing story, or predictions? I think they would be much appreciated.

Add Comment

E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.

Form options