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Why Moscow Went Into Georgia

  • Victor Yasmann

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meeting with Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh in Moscow on August 14

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meeting with Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh in Moscow on August 14

The geopolitical consequences of the Russia-Georgia conflict remain unclear both to the participants themselves and to the outside world. Their outlines will only become clear after the dust settles in the current diplomatic phase of the war. The key point of dispute now seems to be the West's insistence on Georgia's territorial integrity and Moscow's unwillingness to even recognize it.

In separate statements in the last few days, President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have all questioned Georgia's internationally recognized territorial integrity. They have declared that Moscow is ready to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

After a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 15, Medvedev said Russia will "fulfill the will" of the Ossetians and Abkhaz and will step forward as the guarantor of the realization of that "will" both in the region and further abroad. There are other convincing, albeit indirect indications that Russia intends to ignore the Western position on Georgian territorial integrity and, possibly, annex these territories or attach them to the Russian Federation in some form or another.

For instance, Putin announced that the government has allocated 10 billion rubles ($408 million) for "reconstruction work" in South Ossetia. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said this money will be including in the federal budgets for 2008-11 and will be placed under a special fund controlled from Vladikavkaz. It seems unlikely anyone would invest such a major sum in a tiny region with a population of less than 80,000 without any ulterior motives.

As the military action in Georgia winds down, a clearer picture is emerging on the ground. Russia seems intent on solidifying its hold over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but is not making claims on other parts of Georgia. Moscow is wise enough to see the difficulty of assimilating territory settled by people who are hostile to it.

In Georgia, of course, even including the opposition -- where, unlike Russia, the opposition plays a real role -- there is not a single public figure or group that espouses a pro-Russian line. And the war has only rallied Georgians around their president, whether they like him or not. The overwhelming majority of Georgians want only one thing at the moment -- for Russian troops to leave the country immediately. Any questions about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's political responsibility have been put on the back burner.

Russia's Developing Strategy

Russia's new strategy in Georgia seems to be taking shape. Russian forces will remain in the separatist enclaves in the form of quasi-peacekeepers until Russia resolves the political questions of their status vis-a-vis the Russian Federation. During his August 13 meeting with the de facto heads of both regions, Medvedev virtually promised as much. It would seem that he had in view the possibility of letting the two regions join the Russia-Belarus Union State, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), or the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization. As part of that process, Russia will likely try to legitimize its military presence in the regions by signing permanent basing agreements with them and ending the need for "peacekeepers."

As for South Ossetia and Abkhazia joining the Russian Federation, that is a distant perspective. Such a move would be intimidating to the other CIS countries, many of whom are already fretting about the possibility of redrawing the post-Soviet international borders. This applies first and foremost to Ukraine, which is worried about Russian pretensions to the Crimea and the Donbas region, worries that increased when the Russian Duma voted in May to urge the renegotiation of the bilateral treaty on the border between the two countries.

Such concerns have a legitimate basis beyond mere rhetoric. In 2001, Russia passed a law on the procedures for accepting new subjects of the Russian Federation, including territories that do not have common borders with Russia. Lawmakers at the time were open about the fact that they had in mind regions like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdniester, and, possibly, Nagorno-Karabakh. The law establishes rather complex conditions for acceptance, including the approval of the government of the country of which the region is currently a territory and the holding of an all-Russia referendum on the issue. However, the law exists and amending it to suit the Kremlin is not a problem in Russia.

The main trophy for Moscow in the conflict is clearly Abkhazia, which in Soviet times was called the pearl of the Black Sea coast. The region lies just 30 kilometers from Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Russian government is expected to invest around $30 billion in that event, and Abkhazia is playing an important role in the process of "absorbing" that investment. The region has long been known as a zone for laundering criminal capital from across Russia and, particularly, from Moscow.

And it is important as well to mention Abkhazia's strategic importance for the Black Sea Fleet. The port at Sukhumi is comparable to the base Russia leases from Ukraine at Sevastopol and is better than the one at the Russian city of Novorossiisk.

In the end, Moscow's military and political efforts in the region will help solidify its position of Eurasian energy hegemony. The military action in the Caucasus has made the prospect of transporting oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and other non-Russian routes seem potentially perilous.

So, in addition to the real, short-term "humanitarian" reasons for the quick military action in Georgia, there are broader political, economic, and strategic interests at play in the Kremlin's calculus of war.
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.