Shahin Badkoubei is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The next twelve to eighteen months will be a critical test of already tense and tenuous relations between Russia and Georgia. What could escalate to a level similar to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, territorial disputes over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain unresolved since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and are a potential trigger of conflict. Russia has not fulfilled its obligations under the 2008 cease-fire agreement, and continues to push territorial markers in the breakaway regions and grant Russian passports to citizens living there. Upcoming events, including the July Warsaw North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit and Georgia’s parliamentary elections in fall 2016, could escalate tensions or renew confrontation.
A myriad of factors threaten to ignite renewed aggression between the two governments as described in a new Center for Preventive Action Contingency Planning Memorandum, “Renewed Confrontation in Georgia.” David Kramer, senior director at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, outlines scenarios that could lead to a Russia-Georgia confrontation, and details U.S. interests in and options for preventing and mitigating further conflict.
Kramer’s report asserts that Russian aggression toward Georgia could be precipitated to distract the Russian public from domestic issues, such as its declining economy or blow back from military action in Syria or Ukraine. Russian government rhetoric increasingly mentions Georgia, a sign that Russia may be preparing for military action, Kramer says. Beyond Russia’s border, if the current Georgian Dream (GD) party, which Russia prefers, is poised to lose to the pro-West United National Movement (UNM) in Georgia’s parliamentary elections this October, Russia could flex its strength by imposing economic pressure or stationing troops along the border. Kramer also raises the possibility of aggression instigated by pro-Russian supporters in South Ossetia. Leonid Tibilov, the South Ossetian leader, proposed a referendum to vote on joining Russia. Tibilov and fellow supporters may risk independently taking action to deepen relations with Moscow and separate from Georgia, assuming that Russia will come to their aid.
Preventing and mitigating Russian hostility is a priority for Georgia since it is not a member of NATO, nor a U.S. treaty ally, and therefore does not have Article 5 security guarantees. As such, Georgia seeks to enhance its ties with the West. The government is taking the steps to seek eligibility, and hopes that its candidacy will be a topic of discussion at this July’s NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland. However, Russia perceives Georgia’s NATO membership-bid as a threat to its sphere of influence. Should an acceptance be on the horizon, Russia may preemptively respond aggressively to demonstrate Georgia’s lack of territorial control and military capabilities, which are requisites for membership. Conversely, Kramer points to the risk of a NATO rejection, in which case Russia might perceive NATO’s disinterest and feel emboldened to flex its military might towards Georgia.
Why should the United States entangle itself in another conflict if its interests seem fairly limited and its relationship with Russia is at its weakest point since the Cold War? A U.S. response to Russian aggression in Georgia risks further deteriorating the U.S.-Russia relationship, as well as increasing regional polarization that could induce another Cold War, Kramer argues. To promote democratic and liberal economic values, the United States has provided $3 billion in assistance to Georgia, which has one of the most pro-American populations in the region. According to Kramer, preventing an armed conflict is critical for the United States to maintain its regional presence and any hope of a Georgian integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Should violence break out, a lack of involvement on behalf of the United States would risk its credibility in the region. A renewed Russia-Georgia confrontation would have rippling effects on neighboring countries and undermine the post-Cold War order, as did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition to U.S. options to mitigate a potential conflict, Kramer outlines a series of preventive recommendations:
• State clearly that the door to NATO remains open and that not offering a Membership Action Plan does not mean backing off from the 2008 Bucharest NATO Communiqué, which stated that Ukraine and Georgia would become members.
• Encourage greater trade and interaction between Georgia and Russia by urging the removal of Russian trade barriers.
• Urge confidence-building measures among officials and civil society groups in Georgia and those in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
• Beef-up the independence of Georgia’s economic and financial institutions to avoid heavy Russian influence and support efforts to develop Georgia’s energy potential.
• Bolster deterrence of Russian opportunism and aggression through closer bilateral military ties under the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership.
To learn more about Kramer’s analysis and policy recommendations, read “Renewed Confrontation in Georgia.”