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.

South Ossetia: Saakashvili’s Gamble and his failure to learn from Kosovo

If you were to watch American media, then you would think that Russia, on its own accord and without any provocation, has grandoise plans to invade Georgia and then work its way West towards Europe before landing on the shores of New York, all in its quest to take over the world.  Of course, things are never as simple as they seem, but the American media’s attempt to portray the situation in South Ossetia as mere Russian aggression — some perverted attempt at a domino theory — patently ignores the political realities on the ground.

I am not going to get into a protracted description of the history behind South Ossetia.  I’ll leave that for later posts or, if you’re impatient, you can simply do a search on google and get your share of information about South Ossetia.  But for the sake of this post, some facts to keep in mind that aren’t so apparent if you were to watch CNN or read the New York Times or watch Good Morning America for your news:  South Ossetia is part of Georgia yet, like Kosovo is/was to Serbia, demands its independence from Georgia.  South Ossetia has wanted its independence from Georgia for many years.  In fact, South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s.  South Ossetia also is aligned with Russia and, not surprisingly, Russia supports South Ossetia’s independence — both implicitly with financing and military support and explicitly with political speeches and state sponsored news articles.  Despite the fact that the majority of the international community does not recognize South Ossetia as an independent country, but rather a part of Georgia, the international community also acknowledges that the region is a disputed area. 

What does this mean in plain english?  It means that the question of who rightfully “owns” South Ossetia — Georgia or South Ossetia — is not in any way, shape, or form, cut or dry.  That is the precarious balance South Ossetia has been in for many years.

President Saakashvilli of Georgia, like many of Georgia’s leaders, made a campaign pledge to “reunite” South Ossetia with Georgia.  Rhetoric is one thing.  That’s what politics is all about.  Beat your chest.  Pound your fist on the table.  But transforming rhetoric to practice is an entirely different thing.   And, on August 8, 2008, when Georgia “went into” South Ossetia to “take it back,” it failed to consider the political reality, none of which, fortunately or unfortunately, had to do with the concept of its own territorial integrity.

For one, as noted, the disputed area of South Ossetia is not some fly-by-night movement conceived by some nutcase two months ago after a long night at the bar.   Even before the claim for independence in the 1990s, South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast of the former Soviet Union . . . in 1922.  The history goes even father back when one talks about Ossetians generally.  The bottom line is that there’s history — real history — behind this region.  And, for the other, South Ossetia is a disputed area, even though the majority of the international community concedes that South Ossetia is part of Georgia.  The previous statement may seem like a contradiction, but what this really underscores is the situation in South Ossetia is a political one.  That is the reality.  Take it or leave it.

Now, put these two things together and ask yourself:  what the hell was President Saakashvilli thinking?  To be sure, he certainly had the principle behind his actions, i.e., that South Ossetia is part of Georgia, and South Ossetia’s continued attempts to cede, even with the implicit or explicit help of the Russians, should be met with force, as the action was a threat to its territorial integrity.  But political diplomacy, whether one likes it or not, is more than just principle.  The other equally compelling question that President Saakashvilli failed to ask, or perhaps failed to ponder more, was whether there was political will to support the action his army took.  President Saakashvilli took a jump off the diving board hoping someone would follow.  No one did in the way he wanted.  Perhaps it was a miscommunication, overconfidence, or simply incompetence.  Whatever the explanation, he’s in the water by himself, with the U.S., NATO, and the EU, at most, shouting words of encouragement from a distance not close at all to his proverbial pool.

For Russia’s part, its response was predictable.  In fact, the Russian response to the Georgian “incursion” into South Ossetia had less to do with wanting to protect its oil pipeline than it had to do with its support for South Ossetia’s independence.  If anything, it’s now more clear than ever that the implicit support Russia could neither fully confirm nor deny regarding South Ossetia is now just plain explicit.  But if the Georgians had to bring their army into South Ossetia to figure that Russia’s support for South Ossetia was truly explicit, then either Saakashvili is thickheaded or just failing to see reality.  Georgia’s actions gave Russia a blank check to do what it wanted.  Russia had 1001 perfectly valid reasons to respond.  To protect the peacekeepers.  To protect civilians.  To protect the status quo.  To protect.  To protect.  To protect. 

The status quo is what President Saakashvilli grossly misjudged.  The status quo are the “grays” in an ideal world of black and white.  The “grays” are the nuances when “black” and “white” solutions can’t be agreed upon.  Countries keep the status quo until it becomes so thoroughly unworkable that the status quo has to change.  Saakashvilli thought that South Ossetia’s current situation — the status quo — was simply at a breaking point.  Maybe in his mind it was.  Maybe in the political landscape of rhetoric it was.  But the breaking point in the political landscape, particularly when it relates to countries with objectively meritorious claims for independence (even if misguided), has a much, much higher breaking point.  I know supporters of Georgia may not want to hear this, but South Ossetia was anything but at a breaking point.  This was not a Kosovo.  The reality from the beginning was that Saakashvilli was going at this alone. 

In the end, what did Saakashvilli achieve?  Everything that Saakashvilli did not want:  an independent South Ossetia.  Georgia’s actions only went to push the political reality of the South Ossetia status quo much, much closer to an actual decision one way or the other:  independence or no independence.  And while we all wait for that answer, which may take many, many years, South Ossetia will become more of an autonomous province than it has since it declared independence in the early 1990s.  If the Georgians think its grip on South Ossetia was tenuous, then look at it now. 

If you want a real world example of a similar situation, you only have to look so far as North Mitrovica in Kosovo to see what will happen and what is happening to South Ossetia.