Russia Tells The World, ‘Don’t Tread On Me!’

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Dmitri Trenin
August 11, 2008

One can only speculate why Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili decided on August 7 to send his forces into South Ossetia to “restore constitutional order.”

He may have felt that his military, after several years of U.S.-sponsored training and rearmament, was now capable of routing the Ossetian separatists (“bandits,” in the official parlance) and neutralizing the Russian peacekeepers. He may have wanted to take advantage of the window of opportunity in Washington, which might close if Democrat Barack Obama is elected the next U.S. president. He could have calculated that swiftly resolving one of the two conflicts — the other one is in Abkhazia — would improve Georgia’s chances of winning a Membership Action Plan at NATO’s next meeting in December.

Be that as it may, Saakashvili is a young man in a hurry. It is inconceivable, however, that he had not counted on a Russian reaction. He might have expected a slower and more chaotic response from Moscow, especially with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a boat cruise on the Volga and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attending the opening of the Olympics in Beijing. Even though Saakashvili must have expected his forces to take over the rebel “capital” and help install a pro-Tbilisi administration there before the Russians had arrived, the inevitable Russian invasion was a key part of his plan.

The Georgian leader knew Russia would react forcefully. With the North Caucasus permanently on a slow boil, and the Russian republic of North Ossetia Moscow’s principal stronghold in the region, no Russian leader could ignore the fate of the 80,000 or so South Ossetians — especially since they had been provided, several years ago, with Russian passports. Russia’s invasion, however, would immediately transform the conflict into a direct confrontation between a democratic David and an autocratic Goliath, making sure the sympathy of the Western world would be mobilized for Georgia.

Faced with a united Western stand, Moscow would have to back down, making room for the internationalization of both the Ossetian and the Abkhaz conflict settlements, which, in turn, would bring Georgia closer to the coveted integration into NATO.

Wars seldom end as expected. It is true that, for much of the world, a conflict does not become top news unless a major player is involved. As Saakashvili had hoped, Tbilisi’s opening move received puny media coverage compared to Moscow’s subsequent retaliation. Georgia could also point out that its forces were operating within the country’s internationally recognized boundaries, while Russia would be intervening abroad. Indeed, the UN Security Council, urgently convened at Russia’s request, refused to pass a resolution censuring Georgia for the breach of the cease-fire. The big news to wake up the world would be Russia’s own invasion.

No Way Back

What happened after that looked like a page from the recent history of the Balkans. The Georgian forces subjected the separatist capital to fierce nighttime bombardment, reducing much of the town to rubble. The Ossetian authorities claimed 2,000 civilian deaths. Russia reported 12 of its peacekeepers killed and 150 wounded. Some 30,000 refugees, fleeing the ghost town and other parts of the region, streamed north toward the Russian border. Moscow accused Tbilisi of causing a humanitarian catastrophe, with elements of ethnic cleansing and even genocide, and styled its own actions as peace enforcement. While many observers had for months expected Russia to follow the Kosovo model of 2008 (recognition of separatists), the model that was actually used was that of the 1999 NATO military intervention.

This has serious long-term implications for Russia, its neighbors, the European Union, and the United States. Like Serbia then, Georgia now has irretrievably lost both its wayward provinces. It is inconceivable that after the murderous assault on their capital the Ossetians will ever revert to Georgia’s fold. Abkhazia, which has opened a second front against Georgia, aims, with Moscow’s military support, to consolidate its own borders. Like Montenegro, it has a chance to use its beaches, villas, and wine to sustain itself economically. South Ossetia, by contrast, is not viable as a state. Its self-determination can only mean joining its northern brethren — i.e., asking for annexation by the Russian Federation. Even though the territory and population in question will be very small, this will mark the first case of Russia revising the borders it accepted at the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Georgia will not recognize either the Russian annexation of South Ossetia or the independence of Abkhazia, but will have to live with it. Moscow, for its part, will start pressing Saakashvili by bringing criminal charges against him the way the West had done against Slobodan Milosevic. Capitalizing on Saakashvili’s botched military adventure and boycotting him as a partner, Russia will seek to precipitate a regime change in Tbilisi, again on the model of Belgrade-2000, hoping that a new leadership, even if still anti-Russian, will be more realistic. Moscow’s endgame in the region is restoring its position, as Medvedev puts it, as the guarantor of security in the Caucasus.

And not only in the Caucasus. Russia has already accused Ukraine of helping rearm Georgia. As with Tbilisi, the principal issue between Moscow and Kyiv is the latter’s NATO bid. Russia has long indicated that it will not sit and watch President Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters hijack Ukraine and hitch it to the U.S. military wagon. With Ukraine divided on that issue, and the majority of the population still rejecting NATO membership, the situation, if push comes to shove, promises a crisis of an intensity and scale unparalleled anywhere in the former Soviet Union.

Is this the dawn of a new Cold War? The analogy is misconstrued, because ideology is no longer relevant. The guns of August offer a different, and even more chilling, parallel. It had been clear for some time that the fate of Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe — not necessarily collectively — will depend on how the three looming crises are resolved: the stationing of the U.S. missile defenses in Central Europe, Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and the Georgian conflicts. With the last chip down, the other two are still in the air. The Kremlin’s message is crystal clear: Don’t tread on me. Or, it’s realpolitik, stupid!

Dmitri Trenin is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, deputy director of its Moscow center, and the author, most recently, of “Getting Russia Right.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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