Vol. 2, No. 11 (June 01, 2009)

How the Russian-Georgian war transformed the world

A review of

Sergey Markedonov,
The Big Caucasus: Consequences of the “Five Day War,”’
Threats and Political Consequences
Athens: International Centre for Black Sea Studies, 2009

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Nine months ago, Russia’s invasion of Georgia shattered many of the assumptions leaders of the post-Soviet world had about how countries will behave toward each other, leading to apocalyptic predictions that Moscow would now use force to “reclaim” the former Soviet space and the international community not only in that part of the world but more generally faced a headlong race toward violence and war. 
But in the intervening period, as the dust has settled and as both the direct participants in the fighting and the other powers involved less immediately have gone on to other issues, ever more commentators have suggested that the Russian-Georgian war, being the product of highly specific circumstances, is something the world can take in its stride and will not have those consequences.

Now, in a Xenophon Paper of the distinguished International Centre for Black Sea Studies, Sergey Markedonov, the head of the Inter-ethnic Relations Group at the Moscow Institute for Political and Military Analysis, offers the most comprehensive examination of that conflict yet.  And his detailed, carefully argued, and heavily footnoted study not only explores what made this conflict so specific but also discusses how the war between Russia and Georgia transformed the world, albeit in ways somewhat different than many of the initial reactions to the fighting suggested. 

As Markedonov points out, “in August 2008, the Caucasus region became the focal point of international relations” because Russia’s invasion of Georgia and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia represented “the first precedent of a revision of borders” in the former Soviet space but suggested that Russia is now “a revisionist state” ready, willing and able to challenge the post-1991 settlement more generally.

For the first 15 years after the collapse of the USSR, Markedonov says, Moscow followed what has been described as the Primakov Doctrine, an uncodified set of ideas that suggested the Russian government, given its weakness, should not challenge that settlement but rather protect itself by “containing” the UN, the US and NATO by constant invocation of international law and by “refraining” from any moves to revise the former internal borders that had become international boundaries.

The Georgian conflict suggests that Moscow has now changed its approach, but the change is much less than many have suggested, the Moscow analyst argues.  On the one hand, Russia has avoided challenging borders anywhere else and is likely to do so. Indeed, its influence in Central Asia and even in the former Soviet West requires that it do so.  But on the other, Markedonov says, Moscow’s moves in Georgia are less a reflection of an “imperial resurgence” than an effort to create the prerequisites “for Russia’s peaceful domestic development and for the preservation of its [own territorial] integrity.”

As “exaggerated” as it may sound, he continues, “Russia is a Caucasian state.”  Five of the six armed inter-ethnic conflicts” in the former Soviet space have occurred in that region, and all of them have interlocking implications for the South Caucasus, which now consists of three internationally recognized countries, and for the North Caucasus, which includes both the two partially recognized states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and a band of unstable non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation.

“Thus,” Markedonov continues, “ensuring stability in the Russian Caucasus is unthinkable without and indivisible from achieving stability in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan,” and that is why, he says, “since the dissolution of the USSR, the Russian Federation has taken on the burden of the geopolitical leadership in the South Caucasus” and why it intervened in the way it did in Georgia.  But because other powers, including the US, the EU, Turkey and Iran, are now involved in this region, “the combined conflict potential of the North and South Caucasus can be compared to the Middle East conflict.”

Indeed, it was that outside presence that led to the war last summer, with Russia assuming that if it did not act, Georgia would become a place des armes for the West that would lead to more instability in the North Caucasus, and with Georgia or at least Mikheil Saakashvili assuming that Tbilisi could practice brinksmanship in the area because “the West would approve” any of Georgia’s actions and thus prevent Moscow from moving against Tbilisi.

The war “did not just reconfigure, politically and legally, two hot spots in the CIS” by leading to the “unfreezing” of two conflicts and Russian recognition of the breakaway republics which have now become “partially-recognized states,” but the conflict “also seriously affected the entire ethnic-political situation in Eurasia” by ushering in a new period in which new actors with new calculations have come to the fore.

Confrontations among the CIS countries as a result of the conflict between Russia and Georgia rose to “a qualitatively new level.”  In the first post-Soviet years, these differences were “primarily caused by the [consequences of] the break-up of the Soviet Union.” But now “they are no longer motivated by the inertia of the past, but by the current dynamics of the development and construction of new nation-states.”  Thus, what had been “’deferred payments’ on the debts of the ‘evil empire’ are now “new claims of payments,” with the frozen conflicts of 1990s disappearing “together with Yeltsin’s generation.”

These new conflicts are understood and will be resolved by a “post-Soviet generation of politicians” which will develop “new rules of the game as the game progresses” rather than operating according to the rules that had governed them in the past.  Thus, Russia is prepared to use force “beyond its territory” in ways no one expected.  But in doing so, “the Kremlin’s ineptitude and unwillingness to spell out its national interests” out of “a fear of looking weak and vulnerable” creates problems because there is a gap between what it says and what it can do that others have already taken note of.

However that may be, however, Moscow has “staked out its role in the post-Soviet terrain in a similar way to the US role in Latin America, the Israeli role in the Middle East, Australia’s in Oceania, and France’s in the former colonies of ‘Black Africa.’” And it has thus defined in a new way the Russian “zone” of its “vital and legitimate interests.”  The format of the post-Soviet space, as [it] was shaped after December 1991, has [thus] collapsed,” and a very different world has emerged as a result, not one in which Moscow will try to re-establish a Soviet-style empire but one in which it will feel far freer to act to promote its interests.

This change puts Moscow on a collision course not only with its immediate neighbors who are likely to view Russian assertiveness as being far broader and more invasive than Moscow plans or indeed can carry out but also with outside powers, including in the first instance the United States, the European Union, Turkey and Iran, who have their own interests in the region and who do not want to see their positions undermined or destroyed by a resurgent Russia.

And that creates real dangers, Markedonov concludes, both because the Russian-Georgian war showed that there is no longer “a unified West” but rather an international system in which there are far more players than before, some of whom can be played off against another, and because the conflict “demonstrated the impossibility” under current conditions “of an impartial, and most importantly, effective and legitimate [system of] international arbitrage” in which most of the players accept the same rules of the game and the ways in which conflicts can and should be resolved.

The Russian-Georgian war, the Moscow analyst says, demonstrated that “the events that took place in 1989-91 marked only the ‘beginning of the end’” of the Yalta-Potsdam world.  Moscow’s extension of recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, following on the West’s recognition of Kosovo, marked the end of that world and opened the door to a period of uncertainty and redefinition.  And that in turn will have consequences not only among countries but also, and especially in the case of the Russian Federation, within countries that may prove more explosive precisely because they are so much less predictable.

Many analysts are likely to challenge parts of Markedonov’s analysis, but his is the most important study of the war yet to emerge precisely because he describes the ways in which this conflict is part and parcel of a more general transformation of the international environment.  And consequently, even those who disagree with him in part are likely to take his important study as a point of departure for their own arguments.  Thus, one could say that his essay represents an intellectual counterpart to the tectonic shift the movement of forces on the ground last summer had in the “real” world.