Solving the Crisis in the Caucasus

Solving the Crisis in the Caucasus

As global leaders scramble to find a solution to the Russia-Georgia conflict, five experts weigh in with possible solutions.  

August 14, 2008 2:16 pm (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

Intense fighting between Russia and Georgia erupted on August 7 after years of antagonistic rhetoric (NYT). After routing Georgian troops in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Russian forces launched an invasion into the rest of Georgia, occupying several towns.

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A cease-fire negotiated by French President Nicholas Sarkozy called for Russian and Georgian forces to return to pre-conflict positions. But reports of violations by both sides have raised concern about ongoing hostilities. Russian officials have said their actions are necessary to protect peacekeepers and citizens in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. President Bush has ordered the U.S. military to deliver humanitarian supplies to the region, and demanded that Moscow “keep its word and act to end the crisis.” As global leaders scramble to find a solution, asked five regional experts what must be done to end the violence and create a climate where lasting peace can be nurtured.

Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow Center

The Ossetian war has entirely transformed the situation in Georgia. In the short term, the six-point agreement negotiated by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, and accepted by Tbilisi, forms the basis for the cease-fire. The old peacekeeping formula cannot be revived. For the time being, Russian forces are creating security belts around both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The only neutral presence in the region recognized by all sides can be that of European monitors.

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There lies a chance for Europe, and above all, the European Union, to move forward with facilitating conflict resolution. The hardest issue will be that of the final status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is crystal clear that they will not revert to Georgia. It is also clear that no political leader in Georgia is ready to admit that. A long process of negotiations and agonizing reflection lies ahead, and it will only be completed when borders are finally recognized by all parties, and confirmed by the international community.

At present, European countries are divided in their assessment of the war and Russia’s reaction. Moscow will seek to reach out to those which, like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, take a more moderate line, and hopes to work with them on a broad security agenda for the continent. Beyond conflict resolution in Georgia, it includes such issues as the Ukrainian leadership’s bid to join NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the U.S. plans to deploy elements of the ballistic missile defense system in Central Europe. With the Georgian conflict finally erupted, the two issues are looming even more prominently on the horizon.

Russia’s relations with the United States have been deteriorating. Moscow blames Washington for having trained and equipped the Georgian military that has been responsible for killing about two thousand Russian citizens in the nighttime shelling of the South Ossetian capital. That, they point out, amounts to half the casualties the United States suffered on 9/11.

Rajan Menon, Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University; Fellow, New America Foundation

Like it or not, the balance of forces decisively favors Russia (IHT). Feel-good ultimatums from us will merely increase Russia’s intransigence. And lofty rhetoric with implied promises to Georgia that we cannot keep will only erode our credibility, further weakening Georgia’s position. As to specific steps, we should:

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Coordinate efforts with the EU to craft a strategy for ensuring that a permanent cease-fire agreement provides for a demilitarized South Ossetia. Russia won’t allow Georgian troops back into the enclave in any event, but with the alleged Georgian “threat” to its client removed, there is an opening to push for the withdrawal of Russian forces.

Work with the EU to persuade Russia and the South Ossetians to accept neutral, third-party peacekeepers in South Ossetia. Those deployed there since the early 1990s hail from these three countries. Georgia has never seen them as neutral—and certainly won’t after this war. Given the current animosity between Washington and Moscow, the U.S. (short on troops in any event) should let EU or UN forces handle peacekeeping.

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Join with the EU to mobilize an international fund to fund the return of refugees and postwar economic reconstruction. Our contribution should be earmarked for Georgia. Russia poses as South Ossetia’s patron; let it bear the costs.

Call for “confidence-building measures” (demilitarized zones, advanced warnings for troop movements, etc.) to promote stability and advise the Georgians during negotiations relating to them.

Provide Georgia the means for self-defense, principally air defense and anti-tank missiles—but on condition that it will not initiate war against South Ossetia.

Push for a new mediation framework on the final status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The long-drawn efforts led by the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and the UN respectively are stuck. If this is to change (a long shot), Russia must pledge not to attack Georgia or to annex South Ossetia; Georgia must promise not to reintroduce troops into South Ossetia or attack it; and South Ossetia must commit to negotiating with Georgia in good faith about a loose confederation (realistically, the best outcome Georgia can now hope for). Gaining these compromises will prove tough, but joint U.S.-EU incentives can help.

Ariel Cohen, Senior Research Fellow, the Heritage Foundation’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies

To restore order in the short term, the U.S. should make sure that Russia signs and respects the cease-fire negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The U.S. should also continue pressure within the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly to achieve a resolution that will voice full and unequivocal support for Georgian territorial integrity, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and for Russian troop withdrawal in accordance to the signed agreement.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should also coordinate support for condemning Russian aggression in Georgia among our European allies. The U.S. should encourage OSCE and EU and the United Nations to send international observers to Georgia in order to facilitate withdrawal of the Russian forces. The U.S. and its European allies should communicate to Moscow that its aggression will not stand and cannot be accomplished without irreparable harm to Russia’s international standing for decades to come.

Longer term, the U.S. and Europe should lead the world in demanding that Russia withdraw all its troops from all the territory of Georgia and recognize Georgia’s territorial integrity.

They should convey to Russia that its invasion of Georgia has forfeited its membership in the G8 and may derail its aspirations to join the World Trade Organization and to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, only twenty kilometers from Georgia.

Washington needs to push for other great powers to speak out, including Germany, France, India, Brazil, Japan, Korea, Turkey, and China. This support would "globalize" the condemnation.

In order to resolve the deeper roots of the crisis, the U.S. should begin talks at a neutral forum such as the OSCE to finally settle the South Ossetian and Abkhazian problems. This can be done by granting these territories full autonomy within the Georgian state, as Tbilisi has repeatedly suggested. This dialogue, propelled by the U.S. and European leaderships through incentive packages and security guarantees, could serve as the basis for a more comprehensive resolution of other conflicts in the former Soviet zone, such as Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Finally, the U.S. and its European allies should coordinate policies of expanded security cooperation with the countries of the former Soviet Union to avoid the recurrence of the current Caucasus war.

Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow

It is too soon to tell whether the ongoing conflict in Georgia will constitute a turning point in the evolution of the post-Cold War world. From one perspective, Russia’s invasion of Georgia demonstrates that Moscow will not be the responsible stakeholder that many had hoped for. Accordingly, the West must transition from a strategy of cautiously engaging Russia to one of isolation and containment. From another perspective, Russia’s actions constitute a disproportionate reaction to the escalation of fighting in South Ossetia, but not a clear sign that Russia has again embraced the path of imperial aggression.

Georgia and Russia both bear responsibility for the outbreak of conflict. Since taking office, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has consistently embraced a blustery brand of nationalism, vowing to “liberate” and “reclaim” the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow has been only too eager to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Saakashvili. Russia has backed separatists in both regions and, especially after the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, taken a series of provocative actions that emboldened its Abkhaz and South Ossetian allies.

Saakashvili’s taunts aside, Russia’s overreaction reveals a new and worrying muscularity and is emblematic of its disaffection with U.S. and European policy. From Moscow’s perspective, a series of developments—including the ongoing expansion of NATO, the prospective deployment of a missile defense system in Central Europe, and the separation of Kosovo from Serbia—demonstrated the West’s disregard for Russia’s legitimate security interests. Now that the Kremlin is flush with oil revenue and Russia’s government is again in control of the state, the conflict over Georgia serves as a proxy for Russia’s attempt to push back against the West and reassert its influence in its periphery.

As it seeks to discern Russia’s longer term intentions and determine whether the current crisis represents the return of Russian imperialism or more of a detour on the way to Russia’s potential integration into a cooperative international order, the West should focus on the following questions.

• Does Russia withdraw its troops from Georgia proper in a timely fashion, or maintain its military presence in Georgia and seek to turn the country into a satellite?
• Does Russia readily allow international assistance to arrive and permit international monitors and peacekeepers to deploy quickly, or does Moscow appear intent on occupying Georgia or controlling it through coercion?
• Does Russia withdraw the bulk of its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and engage in good-faith negotiations over the political status of both territories, or does it capitalize on its military occupation to annex both regions?
• Does Russia refrain from obstructing Georgia’s own political and economic choices about ties to the West, or does it compromise the flow of oil and gas through Georgia, attempt to intimidate Tbilisi, and seek to veto its strategic and economic ties to the West?

Alan Mendoza, Executive Director, The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics

Short-term order can only be restored by full compliance with the cease-fire stipulations. Currently, Russia remains disinclined to withdraw its forces from Georgia, let alone South Ossetia. International pressure should be placed on Russia to ensure that it downgrades its role to a ‘peacekeeping’ level, notwithstanding the fallacy of its role as a dispassionate observer through its military invasion. The withdrawal must be accompanied by an international observer element to counter any Russian temptation to backslide. Russian forces cannot remain in Georgia beyond South Ossetia: This will only spark resentment and provide for conflict perpetuation, not resolution.

The orchestration of an aggressive forward strategy in this conflict by Moscow marks the evolution of Russian foreign policy to a highly dangerous level. Russia has previously used political, economic, and technological methods to punish those neighbouring states it deems to have attempted to escape its influence, as Ukraine, Estonia and Lithuania can all testify. The invasion of sovereign territory is of a qualitatively different order, being an open breach of international law and incapable of being defended on either preemptive or preventative national security grounds. If Russia is now allowed to claim a diplomatic victory, the military option will remain firmly on its table and aggressive, expansionist Russian nationalism—the real root cause of the conflict—will be emboldened.

In response, the West must show that violence will be punished, not rewarded. The Russia-inclusive G8 should be sidelined in favour of the G7, and Russian OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] and WTO entry stalled. EU members need to develop a joint approach to alternative energy supply, rather than striking bilateral deals. Crucially, there must be no delay in NATO’s consideration of Georgian and Ukrainian membership. It would be fitting if the issue that underlay Russia’s belligerence could be used to demonstrate the futility of such aggression.


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