Anne Applebaum, recently named one of "the world's most sophisticated thinkers" by Foreign Policy, raised an important point in her Washington Post column on Tuesday—and an important concern. Applebaum, who is also an adjunct fellow at the neoconservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute, is right on target in her argument that the oft-forgotten de-facto- independent republic of Abkhazia could trigger war between Russia and Georgia. There is a very real possibility that tension over Abkhazia will escalate, so understanding the nature of the conflict is key. Unfortunately, Applebaum’s analysis sheds no light on the situation, but rather points to a disturbing trend in American mainstream media: presenting simplistic and therefore misleading analysis of foreign-policy issues. So what are the facts?
Abkhazia is not exactly “a province of Georgia that declared its independence in 1992” and proceeded to engage in the ethnic cleansing of Georgians, as Applebaum states. Reality is far more complex. Abkhazia and Georgia shared equal status as Socialist Soviet Republics in the Soviet Union for a decade until Stalin demoted Abkhazia against its will to an Autonomous SSR within Georgia, but under Moscow’s overall rule. Both ethnic groups suffered periods of repression in the Soviet period, and when Georgia broke away from the USSR in 1991 under the leadership of extreme-nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Abkhazia, fearful of losing all autonomy, declared itself a sovereign republic. A brief civil war broke out in which atrocities were committed on both sides, albeit far more so by the Abkhaz. A massive flight by ethnic Georgians ensued—not dissimilar to that of the Hindus and Muslims following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 or of the Palestinians from Israel in 1948—and Abkhazia has enjoyed de facto independence from Georgia ever since.
Applebaum goes on to allege that Russia “has a long-term interest in the destabilization of pro-American, pro-Western, pro-NATO Georgia.” If destabilizing Georgia has long been Russia’s intent, it is odd then that Moscow took on the role of mediator during two major crises in the country in recent years. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in essence helped Western-leaning Mikhail Saakashvili come to power by negotiating the resignation of President Eduard Svevardnadze and aided Georgia in regaining control over another secessionist region, Adjaria, by encouraging its leader to back down. Relations between the two countries soured when Saakashvili adopted anti-Russian positions and began to portray himself to the West as a leader who could stand up to Moscow. The Kremlin’s subsequent lack of eagerness to help Georgia reconquer Abzkhazia and South Ossetia should come as no surprise. What nation would want to help an openly hostile leader expand his rule?
Furthermore, Russia has been heavily criticized for allegedly shooting down Georgian military planes in what Applebaum describes as “a pretty obvious attempt to create a casus belli.” These planes, however, were actually spy drones flying over Abkhazia. So why has no one bothered to question why Georgia was violating peace agreements it signed in 1994 by flying the planes in the first place? It seems that when the United States or its allies are involved, different questions are asked and different stories are told. If Syria began flying planes over the Golan Heights, its internationally-recognized territory, wouldn’t the United States view that as an act of aggression against Israel? And wouldn’t it rightfully support its ally? Russia, however, is portrayed as intentionally provoking and even bullying “an emerging democracy, an aspiring NATO ally.”
Applebaum too refers to a possible Russian invasion of Georgia and of Abkhazia. These are two very different things. If Russia invades Georgia within the borders it currently controls, this kind of aggression would indeed deserve a strong response from the international community. But if Applebaum is in fact referring to Abkhazia, then is she arguing that the U.S. should support Tbilisi in an attempt to use military action in the autonomous republic—clearly violating UN Security Council resolutions? And can Russia actually be accused of invading Abkhazia when it already has a friendly government in the republic and maintains a military base and UN sanctioned peacekeeping troops there? Following this logic, would Applebaum also argue that NATO invaded Kosovo when it ignored Serbia’s objection to its independence?
What is troubling is the fact that the simplistic arguments that appear in our newspapers are all too often reflected in U.S. foreign policy. We readily adopt these comfortable narratives, use them in dialogues with other major powers and are then surprised when we don’t get what we want from others who have different views.
Consider the consequences of our pundits’ outcry of support for Georgia and accusations of Russian aggression. We are in essence encouraging an ally to move toward confrontation with Moscow, while we have no intention, as Applebaum rightly implies, of providing them with military assistance to accomplish their objectives. Were Tbilisi to follow through, Georgia would most certainly lose Abkhazia and face an even more hostile neighbor in Russia, an outcome that undermines Georgia’s sovereignty and damages America’s credibility.
It would also, of course, further stress our shaky relations with Moscow. By accusing Russia of attempting to goad Georgia into war, we are really just forcing Dmitry Medvedev to choose between remaining silent—which could lead the Russian public to question his patriotic credentials before he has even truly begun his presidency—and responding forcefully in his country’s defense. If we have any interest in cooperating with Moscow over issues critical to our national interest, perhaps presenting Medvedev with this kind of challenge over Abkhazia at the very beginning of his presidency is unwise.
Brooke Leonard is a staff member at The Nixon Center.