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West Fails To Deter Georgian President From Playing Into Russian Hands

A Russian armored personnel carrier at an unnamed location in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region on August 11
A Russian armored personnel carrier at an unnamed location in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region on August 11
"If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is superior in strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant."

So wrote the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu more than 2,000 years ago. Russian leaders have apparently studied that ancient blueprint for military and political strategy much more closely than their counterparts in Georgia, or so the latest events would seem to suggest.

For years, Russia has made repeated attempts to provoke Georgia into taking military action against its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Behind that plan was a basic belief that a Georgian crackdown on these regions -- which was bound to cause destruction, civilian casualties, and an exodus of refugees -- would discredit Tbilisi in the eyes of its Western backers and cast permanent doubts on its aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. In addition to its legal obligation under a peacekeeping mandate to safeguard the truce in the region, Russia could then claim a moral duty to defend "its citizens," meaning the thousands of Abkhaz and South Ossetians who were granted Russian citizenship in the aftermath of their respective conflicts with Georgia. In short, Russia needed a moral pretext for a "humanitarian" intervention.

The Georgians finally obliged last week. After a series of skirmishes with South Ossetian paramilitary formations and the declaration by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on August 7 of a unilateral cease-fire, the Georgian Army unexpectedly launched an all-out assault on the territory's main town, Tskhinvali, just hours later, early in the morning of August 8. Tanks and artillery vented their full force on the positions occupied by the Russian peacekeeping units. Inevitably, nonmilitary targets were hit too. And yes, the destruction, civilian casualties (perhaps running into the thousands), and the flight of refugees ensued.

Predictably, the Russian response was prompt and heavy-handed. Apart from mounting a counteroffensive to reassert control over Tskhinvali, the Russian commanders ordered attacks on targets beyond South Ossetia. Bombing raids were launched against several military air bases across the country and the town of Gori, just outside South Ossetia. Asked by journalists whether Russia could bomb the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly answered, "Whatever part of Georgia is used for this aggression is not safe."

Tragedy For All Concerned

The latest fighting is the most serious outbreak of violence since Georgia launched an abortive effort to reconquer South Ossetia in August 2004. It is not yet clear how (and when) it is going to end. It is obvious, however, that it represents a tragic failure on the part of all parties engaged in trying to find a solution to Georgia's protracted conflicts with its alienated former autonomies. Therein lie lessons for policymakers on all sides.

The fluid situation on the ground offers us at this stage only a point of departure for thinking about the future of Georgia, not a map of it. The attack on Tskhinvali has brought Georgia neither military nor political benefits. Quite to the contrary, it furnished its enemies with a perfect pretext to demonize it.

The Georgian government, and President Saakashvili personally, will have to take responsibility for that egregious failure of judgment and focus henceforth on a political solution to the problem. The Saakashvili presidency is coming to be seen as a period of lost opportunities. This is a shame, not least because of the Georgian president's commitment to democratic principles. Georgia needs to find a way to make amends to the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and address the grievances that they have harbored against Tbilisi for so long.

The retreat of the Georgian Army and restoration of control over South Ossetia may instill in the minds of Russian leaders the impression that justice (as they see it) has been served and the culprit punished to the benefit of the common good. That impression may be misguided. As in the classic imperialist interventions of the past, the purported aim of Russia's intervention in South Ossetia was two-pronged: rescuing a victimized minority from an "unprovoked" aggression, and inflicting maximum military and political damage on the aggressor majority. Russia may appear to have achieved both those goals, but the success of its military involvement vividly highlights its own vulnerabilities.

For over a decade, Russia has been grappling with its own secessionist movement, and precisely because of the intractable insurgency in the North Caucasus, it is in the long-term interests of the Russian Federation to work with the government of Georgia to find acceptable terms for the restoration of Tbilisi's control over its separatist regions. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's statement on August 9 that the fighting in South Ossetia virtually demolished in Russia's eyes any claim Georgia formally had to the region, and that "a return to the status quo" is now impossible may backfire as it exposes Russia to charges of land grabbing and abetting separatism.

Finally, the international community must learn its lessons, too. The latest flare-up of violence is partly the result of the West's irresolute and half-hearted mediation efforts in the region. Tough decisions will have to be made. It is time the international community addressed the issue of Russia's peacekeeping role in Georgia's breakaway regions. Russia can no longer be viewed as a disinterested party in the conflict. The EU and the United States need to ensure that peace in this vital region is maintained by a multinational and truly neutral peacekeeping force.

Aslan Doukaev is the director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Video of the fighting in Georgia's breakaway regions, and the latest efforts to end the conflict (Reuters video). Play

For full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.