Russia: “International Guarantor” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? (Or: What does Russia really want?)

Presidenant Dmitri Medvedev’s pronouncement today that Russia would serve as the “international guarantor” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia certainly sent shockwaves to those in the world that are afraid of the resurgent Russian bear.  This pronouncement came just in time as President Bush sent American troops to Georgia for a major “humanitarian mission.”  Given the events of the last week, coupled with these two recent events, and one might think that World War III is imminent.  Russia will storm Georgia’s capital and then the Americans will fight and then we have World War III.

The above hypothetical fact pattern has a better chance of happening in a made for t.v. movie than it does in real life.  To be sure, certainly one wouldn’t be off-base to feel uncomfortable when two military superpowers beat their chest within earshot of each other.  No one wants that.  While some news outlets like CNN and Fox News are urging the public that these recent events are a prelude to war, they are, in fact, a prelude to a diplomatic solution — one that is favorable to the Russians and, obviously, by extension, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

All of this may seem like a dangerous gamble the Russians are playing.  But, in my opinion, the dangerous gamble has to do more with their political stake in the world than it does with any military confrontation.  Given the American “advance” into Georgia, Russia has no actual plan to invade the country (notwithstanding South Ossetia and Abkhazia).  That would be suicide, not because the Russians will lose per se, but it’s not a conflict that either the Americans or Russians want.  Nonetheless, the Russians have to get close, perhaps dangerously close, for the world to believe that they are ready, willing, and able to advance to the capital, so that Russia can obtain the diplomatic solution it wants.  It sounds a bit like a crazy plan, but it’s one they inherited as opposed to one they had premeditations about.

What is that plan?  Well, the Russians and the Americans will sit down for diplomatic talks, as they are already — unofficially.  These diplomatic talks will go really nowhere.  Americans will want the Russians to leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  The Russians will not do so, because, they will say, how can they guarantee the safety of the “citizens” of those regions?  Back and forth.  Then, in short order, a European country, most likely France, will strongly suggest that UN peacekeepers come in to safeguard South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  The initial ultimate goal would be for these regions to become UN protectorates. 

What Russia wants is similar to a Kosovo situation.  You may ask yourself that Russia didn’t do so well with Kosovo, as Russia and Serbia lost Kosovo to, well, Kosovo.  But this situation is much different and, at least in the short term, puts Russia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia in the driver’s seat — all of which was prompted by the politically unguided yet principled decision by Georgia’s president to “take back” South Ossetia.  When the UN comes in, as it eventually will after some tense diplomatic moments, the region will have legally protected autonomy that it didn’t have under Georgian rule.

And, in the end, this is exactly what Russia wants.


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