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Georgia-Russia Clash: A ‘Bump’ or ‘Fork’ in Road?

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 11, 2008

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Stephen Sestanovich, CFR senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies, says the fighting between Georgia and Russia over the Georgian province of South Ossetia is more a “war” than a “conflict,” and could have far-reaching consequences. He says that it may well decide how the West regards Russia in the future. The United States and Europe must decide " whether this now puts Russia in a different category, a kind of international disturber or outlaw that can't be treated as a partner in the way that Western countries have wanted to since the end of the Cold War,” Sestanovich says.

A conflict has now arisen in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia, which borders on Russia’s North Ossetia. The international community says there should be a cease-fire. President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia has reportedly signed this cease-fire, but we haven't yet heard from the Russians. What started all this?

This “war”—and I think that is a more appropriate term than “conflict”—began in earnest at the end of last week when the Georgians responded to shelling from the Russian-controlled part of South Ossetia into their own portion of the province and maybe into Georgian territory proper. But this was only the spark that produced the big fire. The confrontation has been building for several months, and one might even say for several years. The big increase in tension came in April when the Russians announced that they would upgrade their relations with the two breakaway provinces of Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They followed that by increasing the troop contingent that they had in those provinces, essentially a peacekeeping force. They increased military pressure, shooting down Georgian drones and sending Russian aircraft over Georgian territory. The expectation of many observers was that they were looking to exert a kind of pressure that would cause the Georgians to respond in some way that would then make it possible for Russian forces to come in and strike. And that's what has happened now. And it's not confined to South Ossetia. The Russian military operations extend across Georgian territory to the coast, far from South Ossetia, to towns closer to the capital and in fact to Tbilisi itself, where the airport was bombed and at least for a time, closed as a consequence of Russian attack.

What do you think the ultimate Russian goal is here?

We can't be sure of that at this point. We have the alleged comment from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the president of Georgia, Saakashvili, "must go." The relations between the Russian leaders and Saakashvili have been bad for some time. And they plainly regard him as one symbol of their problem with Georgia. It's not as if they wouldn't savor his downfall, but they know that the conflict that they face with the Georgians goes a lot deeper than that and it may be that they've set their sights on bigger goals. There has been some speculation that one reason they're driving towards Gori in the center of the country is actually to divide the country in two. They have had occupying “peacekeeping” forces in South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, but those have not been linked. And a cease-fire in place could leave them occupying a significantly large part of the country.

The Americans and the European Union both have called for a cease-fire and President Bush condemned the Russian military attack. Is there anything really that NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] is going to do about this?

As I understand it, the North Atlantic Council has not met on this, although there surely are informal consultations going on. But there hasn't been yet any formal deliberation on this issue by NATO. The United States and the EU have been a little more actively involved. The French in their role as the EU president, at this point, had sent their foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, to Tbilisi. Finland, chairman in office of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], also sent its foreign minister. The United States has been in high-level conversations between Bush and [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. But these have been more to express concern than to make any other proposals other than a cessation of violence.

The Russians were particularly irked because the Georgians have been trying to get into NATO or apply for membership. Nothing's really happened on this because at the last NATO meeting Germany objected, right?

There were a handful of countries that objected to extending to what's called a MAP, a Membership Action Plan, to Georgia and to Ukraine at the last NATO Summit in Bucharest in April. But while the Germans and others opposed that step, which begins a formal process of consultations between the alliance and applicant, they went along with a statement that they expect Georgia and Ukraine to become members of NATO. So in that sense there was an even stronger commitment made to NATO membership, and it may be that the Russians count that just as provocative and disturbing as they would have found a MAP. Russia subsequently said, I believe this was Foreign Minister Lavrov, that they would do anything to keep Georgia out of NATO.

Why do the Russians feel so strongly about Georgia?

It's a country that borders their own. And it borders an unstable part of their country, the North Caucasus, where there has been in recent memory insurrection against Moscow's rule in Chechnya and other provinces of the Caucasus. More than that, they have seen the interest of Georgia and other countries on their periphery in joining Western institutions as part of their isolation and of American gains in the wake of the Cold War. And now with their new found prosperity and self-confidence and sense of geopolitical entitlement, they think they have an opportunity to stop that trend and reverse it.

Realistically, the United States is probably not going to do anything at all, right?

I don't think it's going to offer military support, certainly not of an operational kind. There may be some suggestion that Georgia deserves more military assistance to survive this onslaught. It's unlikely that the United States will impose any of the usual sanctions that are sometimes brought to bear on international miscreants. In the short term, the most important question that the United States and its European allies have to address is whether they now think about Russia in a different way: whether this is just an outburst of bad behavior that has to be written off and six months from now we'll go back to business as usual, or whether this now puts Russia in a different category, a kind of international disturber or outlaw that can't be treated as a partner in the way that Western countries have wanted to since the end of the Cold War. That is an issue that we don't really know the answer to yet. The United States and its European allies have not really sat down to discuss that. They haven't seen this crisis play out yet to its conclusion. But when they do sit down that is going to be the question. Do we consider this a bump in the road, or a fork in the road?

It's interesting to sort of resolve the question of who's in charge in Russia. Prime Minister Putin met with Bush in Beijing, and then he flew to the region. So he's kind of directing traffic.

He's taken operational control of this issue. While President Dmitri Medvedev has made a few statements, he has not been the visible face, or the guiding hand of Russian policy.

Medvedev said today that Russia's objectives have been met. Do you think that means the fighting will soon stop?

They may think they have gone as far as they want to now in teaching the Georgians a lesson. Yesterday, their position was that a cease-fire was not appropriate under the circumstances. And that suggested they had more work that they wanted to accomplish. But the rout of the Georgian forces has been so complete that they may think they can pause and see what the effect will be, including the effect on Saakashvili's government.

Saakashvili has won his elections but he's had a lot of criticism at home. Will he get the greater support of the Georgians or will they say this was stupid to start?

We don't know. Saakashvili has had his critics on a number of points, ranging from centralization of power, pressures on the media, electoral manipulation, but on the issues that are at stake here, the country has been pretty strongly supportive of him. An overwhelming majority, 75 percent or so, backed him in a referendum on NATO membership. And the issue of reuniting the country by solving the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has also been a politically popular one. His vulnerability here isn’t going to be over whether Georgian public opinion is committed to this and whether he mishandled the issues in a way that has set the country back. In the aftermath of this there will probably be a fair bit of finger-pointing and some kind of political shakeout. Whether that weakens him, obliges him to take a different course, we don't know. It's not that he has been pursuing unpopular goals. He may have been pursuing them in a way that has come to seem counterproductive.

When you were ambassador to the newly independent former Soviet Republics, I guess former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was in charge in Georgia?

That's right, at that time Saakashvili was a parliamentarian. He was part of the generation of younger politicians encouraged by Shevardnadze who ultimately threw him out. They banded together a group of thirty- and forty-year olds that wanted to take Georgia in a new direction.

If Shevardnadze was in charge probably he would have a better understanding of the Russians, right?

Shevardnadze was very cagey with dealing with the Russians, but to many people he came to seem too accommodating. A result of his well-founded wariness in dealing with Moscow was that the country became weaker, lost part of its national territory. There was a very widespread sense that he had let the country drift into corruption and disintegration. The question for Saakashvili is whether he will be thought to have mismanaged in the opposite direction: trying too boldly and through single strokes to deal with some of the problems that Shevardnadze couldn't deal with. He's dealt pretty effectively with some things, including corruption, and regaining control of one of these territories, Adjara, but he's had no luck with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And he's now facing by far the worst crisis of his presidency.

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