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Five-day war: the lessons that Russia again fails to learn, by Aleksander B. Krylov

Strategic Cultural Foundation 

Following the break-up of the USSR and the armed conflicts of the early 1990s the situation in the South Caucasus followed the path that proved unfavourable to Russia. The United States and its allies started gaining a footing in the region and pursued a policy of gradually ousting Russia from the South and, in the future, also from the North Caucasus. Moscow pursued a laissez-faire policy, one that bore the imprint of defeatism and unjustified illusions about prospects for future cooperation with the West. The scale of the Russian Federation’s political, military and economic presence in the South Caucasus was steadily shrinking as a result.

The situation began changing in the first decade of the 21st century. The recent years seemed to suggest a radical revaluation of Russia’s policy on the Caucasus, as well as a quality-new character of that policy. Evidence of that was the Five-day war in August 2008, followed by a refusal to recognize as legitimate Georgia’s post-Soviet borders (that is the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic), by the official recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the 26th of August 2008, by concluding treaties of friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance, on setting up two permanent Russian military bases in the two republics, on the joint protection of their borders etc.

But even after the Five-day war Russia failed to learn the lesson and do away with the basic drawback of its Caucasus policy, that of leading developments. One gets the impression that once the war was over, Moscow thought it sufficient to set up military bases and frontier posts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and concentrate on economic aid to the two republics (the aid that unfortunately far too often fails to reach the rank and file there).

Following the Five-day war diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia were severed on Tbilisi’s initiative. The Russian leaders refused to deal with M. Saakashvili. But Russia made no real-term moves to secure Saakashvili’s trial. The information campaign in the West to expose the Georgian Army’s crimes against South Ossetia’s peaceful population stood no comparison (in terms of scale and commitment) with the round-the-clock propaganda of the idea that a “small democratic Georgia” should be defended from being bullied by the “imperial” Russia.

In the wake of the Five-day war Moscow proclaimed a policy of non-interference in Georgia’s internal affairs, said it recognized Georgia’s territorial integrity and began waiting for the Georgian people themselves to condemn and overthrow Saakashvili for the crimes perpetrated. As a result the Georgian dictator got a chance to recover from the military disaster, have more armaments delivered and restore his armed forces’ fighting efficiency.

It was not before Georgia began almost daily shelling of South Ossetia that the Russian leaders said that as of the third of August the force of the Russian military base would make security-related moves on a daily basis in view of the upcoming first anniversary of Georgia’s aggression, including military exercise on South Ossetian soil. President of the Republic of South Ossetia E. Kokoity welcomed the statement in question by the Russian Defence Ministry and “Russia’s very tough mood as regards the situation”. However, it would have proved far more reasonable to preserve that kind of tough mood all along since the winning of the Five-day war, which would have helped cut short the very possibility of Saakashvili’s returning to his previous practice of all sorts of anti-Russian provocations to use them in his propaganda warfare against the Russian Federation. Russian diplomacy has actually lost the opportunity for using the problem of cargo shipments to Afghanistan to bring pressure to bear on the United States and NATO in the Caucasus direction (and in the post-Soviet area in general). Tying Russia’s position on the issue with obtaining a guaranteed embargo on arms deliveries to the aggressor-state Georgia, as well as tying that position with NATO’s enlargement eastwards and other issues that are sensitive to Russia’s national interests couldn’t have been more opportune under the circumstances (even with due account for Russia’s interest in the NATO troops’ further presence in Afghanistan). But rather than bargaining about the transit shipment problem, Russia grew so fascinated by the Obama-announced “resetting” that actually gave the US and NATO the green light to ship their cargoes to Afghanistan across Russian soil.

In response Russia got Obama’s broad smile and his verbal promise to improve relations with Moscow. This is certainly suggestive of a story of twenty years ago and involving the very same kind of verbal promises not to expand NATO eastwards following the break-up of the Warsaw Pact and the reunification of Germany. One would hate to see the current Russian leaders to inherit Mikhail Gorbachev’s amazing gullibility with regard to our western partners.

Russia continues to remain the world’s only nation that boasts a nuclear capacity that’s comparable with that of the United States, which determines the character of the policy that the United States and NATO pursue on this country. The US and NATO will naturally seek to comprehensively weaken Russia, which is graphically illustrated in the Caucasus region, the one that’s so sensitive to Russia’s national security.

The new US Administration’s officials continue making contradictory statements on Washington’s Caucasus policy. Most State Department officials that have retained their posts since the George Bush years insist that the previous policy has been preserved and point out that change will prove cosmetic in character.

However, the Barack Obama-announced “resetting” of US-Russian relations instils certain hope that the new Administration may give up at least the toughest forms of confrontation with Russia in the Caucasus. Obama’s Caucasus policy will most likely proceed from the expediency of reducing the scale of the US direct involvement in regional affairs and from the striving for shifting the greater share of worries about the defence of the US interests on the NATO allies and on other countries and international organizations (by analogy with Iraq and Somalia).

Under the new Administration the United States has actually forgone its former policy of granting Georgia and Ukraine NATO membership in the shortest possible time. The US Senate Commission on studying the US policy on Russia advised the new Administration against encouraging Georgia’s and Ukraine’s joining NATO. The Commission has drawn up a document that suggests “resigning to the fact that neither Ukraine, nor Georgia is prepared for NATO membership” and using other opportunities for developing partnership relations with these countries.

The Senators offered, by way of an alternative to NATO membership, “a special form of cooperation” of Georgia and Ukraine with the military alliance. The NATO Command shares the view. Before stepping down as NATO’s Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that Ukraine and Georgia were unprepared for joining NATO and that the situation would hardly change in the foreseeable future. He emphasized that some country’s leader’s desire for joining does not necessarily imply that their country will be granted NATO membership.

But nor is this evidence that NATO has given up its policy of enlargement. Hardly had the alliance’s new Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen settled himself in his new armchair when he demanded that Moscow should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours and emphasized that he would go ahead with “practical cooperation” for supporting Ukraine’s and Georgia’s armed forces’ reforms. Rasmussen reiterated that Ukraine and Georgia could gain NATO membership provided they met the alliance’s required criteria and, unlike his predecessor, made no comment on the deadline the two countries should meet (with Ukrainian “orange” and Georgian “rosy” democrats cheering this). This did not prevent him from recognizing Russia as NATO’s second priority after Afghanistan and claiming that he sought to normalize relations with Russia, which was hardly convincing what with his previous statements about the intention to continue pursuing the policy of NATO’s enlargement eastwards.

It was only recently that the American Administration was revelling, amid the unipolar world situation, in its seemingly unlimited power, treating its NATO allies disparagingly and taking little care of their interests in the South Caucasus or elsewhere. This kind of patronizing tone caused obvious annoyance in many European politicians. Now that Washington’s “Pax Americana” is falling to decay, the US has stopped harping on the subject of Europe-and-the-entire-humanity-made-happy-by-the-United-States and is clearly seeking to disburden its cares on its NATO allies. The “Eastern Partnership” project, which has been drawn up to replace the now bankrupt GUAM alliance has come in handy as a supplement to NATO’s plans to expand eastwards.

The “Eastern Partnership’s” officially proclaimed objective is to “undertake integration initiatives” with regard to the six post-Soviet republics that are not part of the European Union or NATO, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Specifically, in terms of boosting political interaction, providing for concluding new-generation association agreements, achieving closer integration of the “eastern partners’” economies into the economy of the European Union, easing visa formalities and taking joint measures in the field of energy security in the interests of all parties to the partnership, as well as in extending the scope of financial aid.

Russia’s involvement in the “Eastern Partnership” project is not really foreseen, which is evidence of the West’s striving for this country’s political and economic isolation. The project’s actual objective is to block integration trends in the post-Soviet area through disorganizing the performance of the CIS, EurAsEc, CSTO and SCO.

Most investment projects of the “Eastern Partnership” are about such strategically important areas as power production, transport, the protection of external borders, the law enforcement system, forestalling emergency situations. The project also provides for setting up a “Forum of nongovernmental organizations” that would enable the European Union to energetically influence the internal political situation in the post-Soviet countries, specifically through funding opposition organizations.

Although EU leaders keep making statements that “Eastern Partnership” is not aimed against Russia, it is obvious that the project seeks to bring back to life and expand the GUAM bloc, which has gone bankrupt and which the United States set up in olden times as an anti-Russian alternative to the CIS. The Five-day war in the South Caucasus has proved that the bloc in question is absolutely untenable. Therefore it is only natural that practical implementation of the “Eastern Partnership” project began right after the Five-day war amid the US and NATO’s obvious inability to oust Russia from the South Caucasus and establish full Euro-Atlantic control over the region.

Shortly after the fighting was over, an EU emergency summit was called in France to adopt a resolution on the need “to provide support for regional cooperation and cement relations with the eastern neighbours through implementing the “Eastern Partnership” and “Black Sea Synergy” projects. Azerbaijan and Georgia (along with Moldavia and Ukraine) were included in the list with no strings attached.

Armenia and Belarus were told that their access to “Eastern Partnership’s” promised economic and other advantages was conditional on the “democratization” of state mechanism and public life. The demand is perfectly formal in character since it would be absurd to consider the authoritarian (as the West puts it) Azerbaijan or absolutely disorganized Ukraine and Georgia as examples of democratic development in the post-Soviet area. It is obvious that “Eastern Partnership’s” advantages have been promised to bring pressure to bear on Armenia and Belarus to ensure their foreign policies’ eventual re-orientation and, in the long term, their rejection of a union with Russia.

“Eastern Partnership” has enabled the USA and EU to have a pronounced effect on Belarusian leaders. Minsk has, as a result, recanted its earlier made promises and is dallying with recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A propaganda campaign has been launched in Armenia to negatively affect the current public sentiment on Russia through libelling Russian-Armenian strategic partnership (which allegedly fails to guarantee Armenia’s security, is unequal and disadvantageous in character). There is little, if any, doubt that the presidential election that’s due in Abkhazia in December 2009 will also be used to destabilize the situation and slander Russia’s Caucasus policy in every way possible.

The Caucasus is so important to Russia that any self-complacence or reposing on the Five-day war laurels is absolutely inadmissible. Russia’s policy on the Caucasus is still non-systemic and incomprehensive in character; pre-emptive moves are either too late or not made at all. The opportunities that offered themselves as a result of the victory in the Five-day war were not taken advantage of in full measure. This has prompted another aggravation of the situation and anti-Russian trend growth both in the North and South Caucasus.

Source: Strategic Cultural Foundation

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