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EU Overwhelmed By Russian 'Cut-And-Thrust' In Georgia

Russian troops are in no hurry to leave.
Russian troops are in no hurry to leave.
Russia is digging in to stay in Georgia, and not just metaphorically.

Its troops are setting up outposts deep inside Georgian territory, far from the scene of the recent conflict in South Ossetia.

The Kremlin has made it clear it will sponsor the breaking away of separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Why Moscow has launched an apparent bid to create a semi-permanent foothold in Georgia outside the two regions remains a mystery for the West, however.

And there is little it can do about it. NATO and the United States have conclusively ruled out military involvement. The EU's arsenal of declarations, common policies, and eventual sanctions is not designed to effect rapid results.

The West's pause for thought has provided Moscow with a window of opportunity to use the leeway it has wrested for itself in Georgia to maximum effect. And this the Kremlin is doing with gusto, even going as far as building a legal case for its occupation of parts of Georgia.

In particular, Russia has seized on a key loophole in the French-mediated cease-fire agreement, contained in its fifth "principle," which allows unspecified "additional security measures" to be implemented in the vicinity of the conflict zone. Moscow argues this makes its continued military presence in Georgia proper strictly legitimate.

Making creative use of earlier agreements between Georgia and its separatist regions, underwritten by the United Nations in Abkhazia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in South Ossetia, Russia has drawn up a wide perimeter around both provinces where it says it has an obligation to prevent a military buildup by Georgia.

Thus, adjacent to Abkhazia, Russian troops are maintaining two large checkpoints on the roads around the Black Sea port of Poti. Just outside South Ossetia, they hold positions overlooking the strategic highway from Tbilisi to the west.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, fending off mounting domestic and international criticism, has sought to clarify the terms of the cease-fire. Sarkozy's office has released a letter sent to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on August 14, in which Sarkozy explains that Russian forces can only patrol in the immediate vicinity of South Ossetia's borders, outside of any major urban centers, and must leave the territory of Georgia proper once an OSCE monitoring mission is in place.

However, a series of telephone conversations between Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have failed to extract Russian compliance. On August 23, the Russian president's office also said in a statement that the two leaders' talks did not broach the issue of "replacing Russian peacekeepers in the security zone with OSCE forces." As a member of the OSCE, Russia is in a position to delay or block any such deployment.

Military Positioning

Left with diplomatic egg on its face, France's last line of defense has been to suggest that without a cease-fire Russia would have stormed Tbilisi. This point was made by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on August 19 at a NATO meeting where the alliance froze its links to Moscow. The claim was backed up by Saakashvili, who told the French daily "Liberation" on August 25 there was a "big chance" that without French mediation, "Russian tanks would now be in Tbilisi."

Russia has also skillfully exploited the ambiguous status of the cease-fire accord itself, arguing it was drawn up jointly by Sarkozy and Medvedev for subsequent endorsement by Saakashvili and the South Ossetian and Abkhaz leaders Eduard Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh. Speaking at UN headquarters on August 20, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the "Medvedev-Sarkozy" principles were "later supported by the Georgian side, the Abkhaz side, and the South Ossetian side" -- implying a parity among the latter three.

The Georgian government vehemently rejects this interpretation, saying the leaders of two "criminal" regimes are not legally empowered to sign international treaties. EU officials also agree that the internationally shunned Kokoity and Bagapsh could not be parties to the cease-fire accord. But officials in Brussels also concede there appear to be "multiple copies" of the cease-fire agreement in circulation.

EU diplomats admit Russia is presently able to run diplomatic rings round Europe and the United States. For example, no one appears to even have begun to question the Russian intervention in Abkhazia during the conflict. If in South Ossetia Moscow argued it had to intervene to save one party to the conflict from attack by another, then in Abkhazia, -- by the same token -- it would have had to join the fray in support of Georgian forces as they came under attack by Abkhaz troops.

Russia's pincer movement of military entrenchment and legalistic cut–and-thrust probably has multiple objectives. In the longer term, Moscow is trying to make sure that once out of the fire, Georgia ends up in the frying pan. Russia's stranglehold on Georgia will certainly harm the country's chances of closer integration with NATO and the EU, could stifle economic growth, and cause chronic political instability.

But in the short term, as one EU diplomat notes, Russia may be simply positioning itself as advantageously as it can for eventual peace talks with Tbilisi. "Before the Georgians can do anything else, they've first got to get the Russians out," the official observes.

Western Impotence

The EU and NATO can meanwhile only look on and try to pile on verbal pressure in the hope that Moscow will at some point relent.

NATO's tentative moves to freeze cooperation have left Moscow unfazed. President Medvedev said on August 25 in Moscow that Russia is "ready to accept any decision, up to a complete break in relations." Russian officials make no secret of the fact they believe NATO would have a lot more to lose than Moscow -- among other things its hard-won overland transit access to Afghanistan.

The EU's leaders at their summit on September 1 will be hamstrung by a similar sense of impotence. Their leverage also largely consists in denying Russia closer cooperation -- like breaking off the strategic partnership talks currently in progress or vetoing Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. This, many in the EU agree, would harm the bloc more than Russia itself, by depriving it of any chance of enticing Moscow to play by a common rulebook.

Georgia's ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili, on August 25 called on the EU to also revoke its visa-facilitation accord with Russia and boycott the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Either measure, however, would hold few real terrors for Russia at this point.

Samadashvili also said the EU should send its own military monitors to Georgia, but acknowledged that the bloc would first need to secure Russian authorization for any such deployment.

While mindful of its relative impotence, the EU must also tread carefully lest it leave the rest of the world with the impression its Common Foreign and Security Policy is now defunct.

Within the bloc, all eyes are now on Germany, the EU's largest country and historically one of Russia's closest partners, which is subtly moving into the breach left by France's mediation efforts. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been touring eastern capitals in the run-up to the summit in a bid to reconcile those within the bloc demanding tough action against Moscow with "Old Europeans," arguing the EU has no choice but to try and find a mutually satisfactory accommodation with Moscow.

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.