Alexander Rahr | Special to Abkhaz World
Putin and Medvedev had just settled into their new political leadership roles. The whole world remained in expectation of a new impulse towards modernization in Russia by the liberal Medvedev. The West decided to postpone the plan of greater NATO expansion to the East, keeping Ukraine and Georgia on the waiting list. In Poland and the Czech Republic the opposition against the US missile defence system had increased. Washington and Moscow were not arguing about the Iranian Nuclear program any more. Medvedev promised Ukraine that mafia structures should be destroyed and that gas business should get more transparent. The US presidential campaign had begun and it seemed that Obama, the candidate of the Democratic Party, planned new peace initiatives towards Russia. Poland and Lithuania put a veto on negotiations, concerning a new partnership agreement between the EU and Russia. Analysts were speaking about a new era of thaw characterizing the relationship between Russia and the West.
But then everything occured very fast. Over the night of August 7th/8th 2008, during the opening of the Olympics Games in China, a new war in the Caucasus started. The world was shocked. Instead of sporting competitions, the main attention of all the news was devoted to rolling tanks, to waves of refugees, and to bombed cities and the many dead. Nobody could believe it: the small Georgian “David” provoked (challenged) the Russian “Goliath”. Parallel to the war events, a propaganda battle was sparked by all the sides to an extent never seen before. At that point, it was not clear what exactly was happening on the south side of the Caucasian mountains. The information was confusing and contradictory. Who was the offender? Who was the victim? Were there several truths?
The fact is that there had been a running conflict on the border of the Georgian heartland and the breakaway republic of South Ossetia for many years. Since the civil war between Georgia and South Ossetia in 1991-2, there had been both Russian and Georgian troops along the border. However, Russia was not seen as playing the role of an honest mediator, adding fuel to the conflict by issuing Russian passports to the inhabitants of the breakaway republic. In addition, Russia was charged with letting the Ossetians arm themselves to the teeth and shell Georgian peace-keeping troops and neighbouring Georgian villages unhindered. The north of South Ossetia is actually isolated from Russia by the Caucasian Mountains. However, there exists the so-called Roki tunnel, which was hewn out of the mountains about 50 years ago. The tunnel is the main economic supply-route from Russia to the breakaway republic. Georgia considers the self-proclaimed government of South Ossetia to be a smuggler regime. On the horror night of August 7th-8th, the Roki tunnel played a decisive role for the outcome of the war.
On the pretext of protecting the Georgian villages from shelling by South Ossetian guerrillas (irregulars), on this night Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia. With his blessing, 12,000 armed men, upgraded with western and Israeli military equipment, were deployed into the breakaway republic. At 22:00 the ceasefire between the Georgian Blue Berets and the Ossetians was broken. The line of the Russian peacekeepers was overrun, and many Blue helmets were killed. The capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, came under fire. The plan of Saakashvili was to drive out the Ossetian population via the Roki tunnel to North Ossetia, one of the Russian republics in the North Caucasus. The Georgians were hoping that the mass exodus of the refugees via the Roki tunnel would prevent the Russian military advancing from the other side.
Georgia committed a mistake crucial for the outcome of the war. Obviously, Saakashvili did not expect such a quick reaction from Russia or resistance from the Ossetian partisans, although he was probably informed via satellite about the Russian troop movements in the north. But, at the same time, Putin was at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Medvedev seemed not to have things under control. Tbilisi believed it would be possible to set a quick precedent in South Ossetia. But Russia has already evacuated several hundred civilians via the Roki tunnel to North Ossetia one week before, a fact of which Saakashvili could not have been aware.
The Kremlin found itself in a dilemma: either give up South Ossetia and risk losing power status in the region, or fend off the attack. Twelve hours after the Georgian attack, Moscow sent tanks of the 58th army through the Roki tunnel into Georgia. The main aim of this action was to support the South Ossetian irregulars against the Georgian regular troops. Russia would speak later of an attempted genocide against the Ossetian population. Georgia would accuse Russia of provoking the war, shelling Georgian villages from South Ossetia. Analysts disagreed as to whether Saakashvili fell into a trap set by Moscow or if he decided in favour of a blitzkrieg, expecting support form the West. Both sides had enough reasons to escalate the conflict in such a manner in order to solve their “strategic task” in the region.
Around midnight, Georgian troops occupied Tskhinvali. Thousands of civilians fled via the Roki Tunnel (in the opposite direction to the moving Russian tanks) into Russia. According to Russian information sources, during that night almost 2000 civilians became victims of the Georgian aggression. Later, Western sources will argue that the number of victims was far smaller. The international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, reported that Georgian troops used cluster bombs against the civilian population. The Georgian side asserted that Russian air raids had destroyed Tskhinvali. In any case, the Georgian forces maintained their defence line for some time. On August 9, Russia brought in its Air Force. According to rumours, Putin threatened Saakashvili, in case of continuing resistance, to bomb Tbilisi. The Russian Navy sailed from Sevastopol in order to control the Abkhazian Coast. No further doubts persisted. The world was witnessing a new war. After many hours of fighting for Tskhinvali and heavy losses on the Georgian side (people talked about 4,000 dead Georgian soldiers), Saakashvili announced the retreat in the afternoon of August 8. His coup had failed. His well-trained and equipped army had underestimated the reaction of the Russians. The biggest part of the Georgian military equipment was destroyed.
In a mad rush, Georgia pulled her army back. As a consequence, the Russian troops pushed forward, a step that would be later criticized by western media as disproportionate. The Russian Air Force destroyed within a few hours the major part of the Georgian military infrastructure. The radar tower in Tbilisi, the oil terminal in the port of Poti as well as the military garrison in Gori were bombed. Television pictures of Saakashvili lying on the ground, escaping an imaginary Russian air strike, flashed around the world. In spite of the fact that Georgian air defences were able to shoot down two Russian fighter-bombers, the Russian army already controlled the whole northern part of Georgia by the end of August 10. The vanguard of the Russian offensive was formed from special units of former Chechen guerrillas, who had been considered by Moscow only a few years before as terrorists. They seized the Georgian city of Gori under the battle cry “Allah is great”. The Georgian population escaped to the southern parts of Tbilisi. Georgia and Russia accused each other of conducting ethnic cleansing. In the part occupied by Russia, there took place looting by the Ossetian guerrillas, and revenge on the Georgian civilian population.
Russia continued to destroy Georgian military installations, justifying it as revenge for the death of the Russian Blue helmets and Russian citizens in the South Ossetia. In reality, Georgia was to be rendered incapable of conducting future attacks against South Ossetia. In addition, Russia wanted to prevent Georgia from becoming a front-line NATO state on its southern doorstep. Suddenly, a second front was opened. The other breakaway republic, Abkhazia, seized the historical opportunity finally to separate from the Georgian heartland. As in South Ossetia, there had been previous skirmishes between Abkhazians and the Georgian military. The Abkhazian separatists kicked the Georgian army units out of their strategic positions in the mountains around Abkhazia. The Russian Black Sea Fleet provided essential protection from naval attacks.
The new Caucasian war ended after only three days. But the real battle in the international media and diplomatic arena was only just beginning. And in this battle Russia seemed to be losing, experiencing difficulties explaining her position and her “truth” concerning the reasons and the course of the war to an angry western public. In the eyes of most Westerners, Georgia was a small choir-boy and Russia the aggressor. The Western media almost exclusively reported on Georgian civilian casualties and damage; only rarely did the fate of the Ossetians get a hearing.
On the other hand, people in the west, particularly from former Warsaw Pact countries were reminded of the events of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. Suddenly, fear spread of a Russian attack on the former Soviet republics. Some Western media stoked the fear by talking about a neo-imperialist Russia. The presidents of Poland, Ukraine and of three Baltic states gathered for a solidarity demonstration for Saakashvili in Tbilisi. They wanted to help their ally to rewrite history and to present Russia as the single aggressor in this conflict. The United States supported this anti-Russian rhetoric and castigated the “imperialist war against Georgia” by Moscow. Between the U.S. and Poland the long-pending agreement on the stationing of a missile defence systems was signed. At the signing ceremony, it was made clear that this defence system was not only pointed against states like Iran. Moscow was expected to understand the message. Due to American pressure, the NATO-Russia Council was put on ice.
Meanwhile, the EU Council and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, hurried to Moscow to prepare a ceasefire and a peace agreement. But just before Sarkozy arrived in Moscow, president Medvedev declared an end to the military operation against Georgia. The course of the negotiations between the EU and Russia was extremely complicated. Russia refused to recognize in the Peace Treaty the sovereignty of the Georgian state, including two breakaway republics. Medvedev also demanded the recognition of a “protected zone” for the Russian Peace troops along the border between Abkhazia/South Ossetia and the Georgian heartland. Sarkozy, who wanted to stop the war as soon as possible, gave his approval. How wide this buffer zone within Georgian heartland should be was not a subject of the negotiations. The French spoke later about “a few kilometres”, where the Russian Blue helmets are allowed. Russia expanded this zone unabashedly almost upto the Black Sea coast.
After the war, it became impossible to force the Abkhazians and the Ossetians to rejoin Georgia, either in the short or medium term. However, for the West the recognition of the state sovereignty of the breakaway republics was out of question, especially, after such blatant International Law violations by Moscow. The French foreign minister referred to the war as a return to the middle Ages. The astonishment of the international community was, however, incomprehensible. The conflict had been there for all to see. But the EU seemed to be always taken by surprise by events in Eastern Europe. The attention of the EU was only fixed on the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, on the gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia, as well as on Russia resuming a position of power.
Obviously, the Western community had prematurely put the disintegration of the Soviet Union on the shelf. The post-Soviet states and regimes often evolved (with western participation) into fragile states. Numerous territorial and ethnic conflicts still persisted in a frozen state. In the Caucasus alone many of these potential conflicts came to the fore. Some reasons for these latent conflicts across the post-Soviet space were caused by the transitional process of the 90s as well as by external geopolitical factors. One of the conflict issues was the expansion of NATO, supported by the United States, to the Black Sea Region and competition for the raw material reserves of the Caspian Sea.
Foreign observers debate why the war broke out when it did? Experts of all camps try to interpret the dynamic of the events and to develop different explanations of the conflict. The central question is who has started the war? Saakashvili denies having ordered the attack on Tskinvali. Russia claims the opposite. In an interview for CNN, Putin blamed conservative circles in America for having an interest in provoking the war. Putin underlined that it was done in order to improve the chances of the ex-presidential candidate of the Republican Party John McCain, who refers to Moscow as the new imperialist aggressor. Also the disaster of the Iraq war needed to be cloaked in a shroud. President Bush, on his way out of office, desperately needed a success in foreign policy in order not to be painted by history as a complete loser. His Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was fighting like a lioness to improve the diplomatic legacy of the Bush administration.
A legitimate question is whether the numerous American and Israeli advisors of Saakashvili knew about his planned attack? According to the newspapers “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” and “Moscow Times”, the United States gave Georgia in the preceding five years 200 million dollars as military aid. Additionally the Georgian army received 100 Mio U.S. dollars from Turkey; Israel provided Georgia with a modern air force. With regard to precision weapons, night vision devices and modern communication equipment, the Georgian army was better equipped than the Russian before the conflict. According to one version, American consultants of Saakashvili advised him against the attack on South Ossetia but failed to persuade their political pupil.
Supposedly, Russia successfully also used the aggression of the hot headed Saakashvili to achieve other strategic objectives in the geopolitically sensitive region. First of all, it weakened the role of Georgia as an exclusive transit corridor for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea, by-passing Russia. As long as Iran is demonised as a rogue state by the United States and remains isolated, the transport of the energy sources from Central Asia and Azerbaijan, by-passing Russia, is manageable only via the territory of Georgia. At the end of the 90s, the former Soviet oil pipeline had been reactivated from Baku to the Georgian Black Sea coast. In the middle of this decade, a second pipeline from Baku via Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan has been laid. Both pipelines brought to an end the Russian monopoly for oil transport to the West.
Secondly, the war destroyed the chances of Georgia entering NATO. If it turns out that Saakashvili really planned the attack on South Ossetia and a quick reunification with the breakaway republics to increase his membership chances, the doors to the western military alliance will stay closed for him. As is well-known, NATO accepts only territorially consolidated states into its ranks. NATO does not want to interfere into the territorial or ethnic conflicts in a candidate country, primarily in order to avoid any possibility of a World War. However, President Bush promised Saakashvili NATO membership in the nearest future. Did the head of the Georgian state just want to use this “window of opportunity” in the last month of the George Bush presidency to utilise the conflict to slip into NATO via the back door? It is an incredible but coherent hypothesis.
Thirdly, Russia’s reaction was revenge for all the humiliations at the hands of the West after the Soviet Union disintegrated. On this hypothesis, Georgia paid for Kosovo, for three NATO expansions to the East, for the U.S missile defence system and for much more. Therefore, according to the Russian point of view, the unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Osssetia is coherent. After all, it was the West which reconstructed the Balkans according to its own preference and breached international law into the bargain. At that time, Russia had no other choice than to watch it happening. But, Putin and Medvedev turned the tables and played the same card. Now, the West is watching Moscow arranging the Caucasus according to its own preference, even if it is breaching international law in doing so.
Russia’s changed attitude is of course problematic. Till now, Moscow insisted that existing international law should be based on the fundamental principle of the territorial sovereignty of a state. This argument Moscow deploys in its fight against Chechen separatists. The preservation of Russia as a state stands above the question of human rights. The same argument Russia used in her critique of the recognition of the Serbian province of Kosovo by the West. The Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, had the right from the Russia’s point of view, to fight with Albanian terrorism on his own territory. But now, in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow has quickly adopted the Western argument. Moscow argues that the protection of human rights in South Ossetia takes priority over the principle of the state sovereignty of Georgia. But it is not only Russia which has problems with justification. Suddenly, the West interpreted the conflict in Georgia against its own principles, principles which not long before were so vehemently defended in the case of Kosovo. Everyone bends international law to suit vested interests.
The new EU and NATO member states are convinced they are right. They have always warned of a new imperialist Russia and referred to the reconciliation policy of the “old Europeans” towards Russia as naïve and strategically wrong. Although this position was supported by the Bush administration, in Europe, nevertheless, the collective prevails. How should Russia punished as demanded by Poland and the Baltic States? Should Western universities kick out all Russian students as the president of Estonia proposed? Or, as in the case of Belarus, should the West impose a travel ban on Russian politicians? Should the EU freeze the bank accounts of the Russian oligarchs, such as the president of Chelsea football club, Roman Abramovich? In any case, the “new Europeans” demand that NATO and the EU expand control instruments against Russia. There is a “Cold War” reappearing on the direct borders between EU and Russia. The call for the immediate inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO is getting louder and louder. Sometimes it seems that the recent members of the Warsaw Pact want to prevent the historical reunification of the whole European continent, including Russia. For the Eastern Europeans, Russia in all respects will always be the aggressor. The people there are convinced that, if the West does nothing, Russia could soon invade the Crimea and the Baltic states. There is no doubt in Warsaw, Tallinn and Riga that the conflict in Georgia is only the beginning of a Russian offensive violently to restore its lost empire.
In reality, the West is helpless and powerless. Firstly, the West is deeply split on the Russian question. Germany, France and other states cannot unilaterally take the side of Georgia in order to stay credible in the conflict, especially when Saakashvili`s responsibility causing the conflict is there for all to see. Within the EU two extreme positions are colliding with each other. The Italians, led by Putin’s friend, Silvio Berlusconi, call for avoiding any condemnation of Russia and simply getting back to everyday problems. The Poles present the toughest position and bring in their old agenda of energy and NATO back into the discussion. Suddenly, everybody is talking about a new “Berlin Wall” which should be built around the Caucasus in order to prevent new aggression from Russian Imperialism.
The German and French call upon all sides in the Georgian conflict to compromise. The Cold War rhetoric is obnoxious. At an extraordinary summit on September 1st, 2008 the EU finally decided against sanctions against Russia and gave Moscow tree months to withdraw the rest of the troops form the Georgian core land. The West needs Moscow´s cooperation on the Iranian question, in the Middle East, in climate protection, on the issues of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and finally in space-exploration. For security reasons, the EU has postponed the hasty inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. After Saakshvili provoked the conflict with Russia, the immediate acceptance of Georgia into NATO would be a signal for others to start new conflicts with Moscow in order to follow the Georgian way into NATO. However, the EU has broken off the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia for the time being. Objectively, this fact cannot damage Moscow so much. Russia is not interested in a relationship with the EU on the basis of those outdated rules. Russia feels strong again and superior to the Europeans, at least militarily and partly economically.
The influential industrial lobbies in the countries of the “old EU”, most notably Germany and Italy, but also France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria advise their governments not to get into confrontation with Moscow. The economic links with Russia are so advanced now that, in the case of indiscriminate sanctions against Moscow, the West will cut off its own nose. One should just examine the trade volumes of the individual EU countries with Russia to realize that the big western companies make use of all segments of the Russian market today. Russia produces very little in her own country. Starting from machinery, industrial technologies, food products, luxury goods and, not least, financial credits are all imported form the West. Thousands of jobs in Germany and other EU countries are directly dependent on the growing Russian market.
The dialogue channels to Moscow should not be closed; on the other hand, Russia must be persuaded to leave Georgian territories. First, the EU tries to be active and to raise money for the reconstruction of Georgia. What should a concrete plan for Georgia look like? Neither breakaway province can be forced to join Georgia again, just as Kosovo Albanians could not be part of Serbia anymore. But the West should also not accept the Russian annexation, because it can only awaken the further appetite of Russia, for example, for the Crimea. Could a confederation be a golden solution for the Georgian problems? Three states in one, as in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina? Had the odd EU enough power in foreign policy to be able to help stabilize the South Caucasus, such a Stability Pact might have been developed years ago. The Europeans lack the will to realise this plan. Recently, the EU, under the leadership of Germany, launched a Central Asia initiative. Should it be now revisited for the South Caucasus? On the other hand, the EU would have to divert significant resources from the Balkans in order to stabilize the Caucasus.
Along with setting up social and economic infrastructures in Georgia, the EU could make an important contribution to the strengthening of the democratic and constitutional institutions in the Caucasian republic. Instead of an accretion to NATO, the EU should offer Georgia the perspective of EU entry. The Georgian accession to the EU could be realised only if Turkey also received membership in the European economics and community values. The Stability Pact should also take into consideration the other conflict zones in the region. The frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could develop into the next major conflict in the tinderbox of the Caucasus. Just as Saakashvili equipped his army in order to fight the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Azeri leader Ilham Aliev considers it to be his patriotic duty to drive from this territory away even by force the Armenians who conquered the Azeri province of Nagorno-Karabakh 15 years ago. The target policy of the EU towards South Caucasus should also be to bring out a historic reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia. The still-closed border between Turkey and Armenia is an obstacle for the European security and defence policy in the region, which could be part of Europe one day.
Moscow should have placed the emergency over the sovereignty of both provinces within the hands of international law. In order to consider this independence legal, one should have carried out local referendums, as well as the internalization of the conflict, by the construction of OSCE and UN monitoring bodies. The presence of international peacekeeping forces is also required. There are few appropriate models, but there are the precedents already applied in the Balkan conflict. The Russian side has the following explanation: Georgia with the support of the USA plans new attacks on the breakaway republics. These last two could be defended only with Russian military support. The Russian peacekeeping troops are not enough to act as a deterrent. Putin also points to the presence of American warships cruising along the eastern Black sea coast.
Perhaps, it would be advisable for the West to start negotiations with Medvedev and Putin about a new OSCE, as was done before with the Soviets, and to establish coexistence with Russia on the continent on the basis of a set of common purposes. Hence, Medvedev’s proposal to work together with the EU, envisaging a collective construction of Europe, is quite realistic. Even if the West fights against giving Russia a voice or a right of veto in the construction of 21st century Europe, it will take some years, but, afterwards, the idea of Russian membership of NATO will win more and more supporters among the Russian and Western politicians. NATO expansion to the East is the biggest obstacle in the relationship between Russia and the West. The West is only partly right, when it proclaims that each country has a right to join any military alliance and Moscow cannot prevent it. However, one of the main principles of the European policy after the Cold war is that the security of one state cannot be ensured at the expense of the safety of another. NATO can hardly ignore the fact that Russia feels threatened when there is Western military infrastructure directly on her borders. The today NATO can theoretically in the next few years integrate all the former Warsaw Pact countries as well as new independent states on post-Soviet territory. NATO partnerships with all these countries have existed for two decades. But Russia also needs a membership perspective, even if it will be never realized. The invitation for Russia to join NATO will help to reduce potential conflicts between her and other potential candidates. As a start, integration could be stared with cooperation on missile defence. This defence system should protect not only America and Poland, but also the West and Russia together.
Alexander Rahr is director of the Russian/Eurasia Program. He is also the coordinator of the institute's EU-Russia Forum. Before joining the Council in 1994, he was a senior analyst at the Research Institute of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Munich and project manager at the Federal Institute for East European and International Studies, Cologne. He has worked as a consultant for the Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, and is member of the executive board of Yalta European Strategy (YES).
He has also worked for "Deutsche Welle" TV and radio programs and has published numerous articles in the German, Russian and international press. He is a frequent guest at political TV shows and regularly writes for "Die Welt" and other newspapers.
He is the author of biographical books of Michael Gorbachev(1986) and Vladimir Putin (2000). His book "Russland gibt Gas" has been published in 2008.
He holds an M.A. in History and Political Sciences from Munich State University. He was awarded the Federal Merit Cross (2003) and is Honorary Professor at the Moscow State University for International Relations (MGIMO).