Moscow Flexes Muscles but Little Will Change

Moscow Flexes Muscles but Little Will Change
The Moscow Times
Nabi Absullaeve
August 11, 2008

Having forcefully reclaimed South Ossetia for its loyal separatist regime, Moscow has sent the strongest possible signal of how far it is ready to go to retain influence in other former Soviet republics.

The conflict is unlikely to escalate into a war by proxy with the West, however, and the situation will eventually return to the pre-conflict status quo, political analysts said Sunday.

President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have labeled Georgia’s attack on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, as “genocide” and said Tbilisi has lost the right to ever govern the separatist region.

Major Western powers have strongly urged Moscow to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and to avoid the excessive use of force — which analysts said suggests that after a lengthy period of gradual military disengagement and negotiations, Georgia will have to accept continued Moscow-backed separatism on its territory.

The South Ossetian conflict was a foreign policy trap for Russia from the start, and the trap slammed shut after the Georgian troops started shelling Tskhinvali late last week and its residents pleaded for Moscow to intervene, said Alexander Khramchikhin, a senior researcher with the Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

“Russia was left with the choice of either becoming a traitor or an aggressor,” he said.

This apparently was a tough choice for a country that feels encircled and humiliated as former vassal regimes turn to the West. The fact that Georgia is a close ally of the United States, which strongly backs its bid to join NATO, promises to further complicate the bigger, geopolitical ramifications of the violence in South Ossetia.

Washington and West European governments criticized Russia for its overwhelming use of force but did not place the full blame for the conflict on it.

The main reason for this was probably because Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili attempted to reintegrate South Ossetia by force without first winning approval from the West, said Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Now, much will depend on how Georgia and Russia portray the conflict to the rest of the world, said Monica Duffy Toft, a Harvard specialist on ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Union.

“Georgia’s best plan at this point is to make it clear that Russia is the aggressor here, that its sovereignty has been violated and that Russia has violated international law and is threatening interstate war and global peace,” she said.

Saakashvili has labeled Russia’s actions “war” and called on Washington to intervene, saying on CNN television that Moscow’s assault against Georgia was also an assault against the United States and its values.

“We on our own cannot fight with Russia,” Saakashvili told the BBC on Sunday.

Although Medvedev, Putin and Lavrov described the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali as “genocide,” most Russian officials are portraying the Russian invasion as legitimate and limited. Saakashvili “cannot even imagine what being in a state of war with Russia would be like,” said Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, Regnum news agency reported.

“Our actions are limited in time, territory and mission,” he said.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington on Saturday, also described the fighting in the South Ossetia as “a very localized conflict,” adding that “there is not a danger of regional conflict at all in our minds,” The Associated Press reported.

NATO and U.S. officials said they would not be drawn into the conflict militarily.

Several international and Russian media outlets suggested that Moscow was pushing to absorb South Ossetia into Russia.

But it would be counterproductive for Russian troops to move into Georgia beyond the border of South Ossetia, analysts said. “It would be most unpleasant for [President Dmitry] Medvedev at the beginning of his presidential term to be viewed around the world as the aggressor,” Malashenko said.

Russia’s decisions to reject Saakashvili’s offer of a cease-fire late last week, carry out attacks against Georgian targets outside South Ossetia, establish a naval blockade of the Georgian coast and reject international mediation do not mean that Moscow has embraced a head-on confrontation with the West but instead is striving to strengthen its position ahead of imminent negotiations, analysts said.

Still, when Russia seeks a return to the status quo of continued separatism in South Ossetia, there will not be as many people with Russian passports living there, Khramchikhin said. “Many refugees who fled to Russia will fear to come back, despite Putin’s promise to restore Tskhinvali with Russian money,” he said.

Also, Russia’s military victory over Georgia could be short-lived because other former Soviet republics will now seek protection from the West after seeing what happened in South Ossetia, fearing that their differences with Moscow might one day lead to an armed invasion, analysts said.

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