Courtesy Reuters

Clarity in the Caucasus?

The Facts and Future of the 2008 Russian-Georgian War

Few people believed that the fact-finding investigation into the 2008 Russia-Georgia war by the European Union -- which released its final report on September 30 -- would reveal new facts. But the report does confirm that Georgia acted irresponsibly in attempting to reconquer the secessionist region of South Ossetia by force, and that Russia acted irresponsibly in militarily intervening to prevent Georgia from overrunning South Ossetian militias and Russian peacekeepers. Yet in declaring a plague on all the houses involved in the five-day war, the EU report misses an opportunity to outline how the long-running territorial disputes of the Caucasus might be best resolved.

In the sweltering August of last year, as Russian tanks headed into Georgia and Georgian forces retreated in municipal buses and old Zhiguli automobiles, the EU emerged as the critical broker in trying to halt the violence. When the smoke cleared, part of the EU’s plan for reconciliation was to charge a high-level working group with investigating the origins and conduct of the war. All sides justified their actions in terms of international law, with Georgia arguing that it acted to prevent violent secession, and Russia arguing that it was protecting ethnic Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers from indiscriminate, even genocidal, attacks. The working group -- formally established in December 2008 and chaired by Heidi Tagliavini, a senior Swiss diplomat with experience in the Caucasus -- was to judge these claims.

Over the spring and summer of 2009, the mission’s members solicited expert analysis, conducted interviews, and received thousands of pages of official documents from Russians, Georgians, South Ossetians, and Abkhaz. The resulting report, which is three volumes and runs more than 1,000 pages, is the first of its kind in EU history. Historians will consider it a major resource, on par with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s famous 1913 report on the origins of the Balkan wars.

Predictably, all sides have interpreted the document according to self-interest. The Russian government and press highlight the portions that blame Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for his attack on South Ossetia, including the targeting of civilian areas in the regional capital, Tskhinvali. Georgians and their supporters point to the passages that condemn Russia’s illegal intervention and its quick recognition -- with no international support, except from Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez -- of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But in rushing to read their own interests into the report, the various sides in the conflict missed some of its central findings. The EU mission found little support for two of Georgia’s main arguments about the origins of the war: that Georgia was justified under international law in using military force to repel attacks on Georgian villages by South Ossetian militias, and that Georgia was simply responding to a preplanned Russian invasion force, which was already on Georgian soil when the fighting began. Contra these claims, the report concludes that the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali (especially the use of multiple rocket-launcher systems) had no legal justification, and that “there was no ongoing armed attack by Russia before the start of the Georgian operation.” As I wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, Georgia’s precipitous decision to bring South Ossetia to heel upset a status quo that, while messy and imperfect, had allowed some degree of stability in the region for more than a decade.

Russia, meanwhile, might have had some justification for protecting its peacekeepers in South Ossetia, but any military action beyond that was deemed unjustified and disproportionate. And South Ossetian and Russian claims that Georgia was perpetrating or preparing a “genocide” against ethnic Ossetians and Russian citizens were, according to the EU report, unsubstantiated. The report also notes that Russia’s claim to have been conducting a “humanitarian intervention” to protect South Ossetians was odd, given that Russia was a consistent opponent of humanitarian interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s.

The EU mission’s most surprising conclusion is that the South Ossetian military, in responding to Georgian attacks, “did conform to international law in terms of legitimate self-defense.” This statement equates South Ossetia’s legal status with that of both Russia and Georgia, since it does not distinguish the South Ossetian irregulars’ use of force from that of the Russian and Georgian militaries. This will come as a surprise not only to Georgia but to any country -- including Russia -- facing an armed secessionist movement. Moreover, it glosses over the question at the heart of the conflict: What is the legal status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are recognized by Russia as de jure independent, treated by the international community as at least semisovereign, and considered by Georgians to be their own territory?

Though it dodges this important issue, the report does represent one glimmer of hope in the Georgian mess: for all the potential horrors of the Russia-Georgia war -- including campaign-season rhetoric from the United States that characterized Georgia’s violent summer as another Prague Spring -- its outcome is now reasonably clear. There is little stomach in Brussels or Washington for trying to roll back the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or for making Russia’s troop presence there a central issue in relations with Moscow. With other matters at stake, from strategic arms control to a nuclear Iran, the status of these two provinces will not return to the political agenda anytime soon. The precipitous drive to bring Georgia (and
Ukraine) into NATO has lost some of its steam, and so NATO can now engage in a more dispassionate assessment of potential members’ capabilities and real significance in Euro-Atlantic security.

Another outcome of the war is that it could actually clarify -- at least in de facto terms -- the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where territorial disputes have festered for years. To be sure, this would require many parties to alter their behavior. Russia would have to act as a responsible player in the Caucasus, not as an old imperial overlord refusing to consider Georgia (and Azerbaijan and Armenia) as sovereign states. Georgia, for its part, would have to deal with the Abkhaz and South Ossetians as neighbors, not as troublesome squatters on ancient Georgian lands. And the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have to start behaving as legitimate, responsible politicians, not as authoritarian mafiosi. Although these shifts are hard to imagine, they are possible -- and would be a great boon to the international system.

The international community has correctly treated many territorial disputes, from Kosovo to East Timor, as open-ended affairs, keeping independence, shared sovereignty, and other creative forms of governance fully on the table as potential outcomes. In the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia before August 2008, however, Western governments unquestionably adopted Georgia’s position in these disputes, making little effort to see things in more nuanced, multifaceted ways; this approach helped push the Saakashvili government into believing that it could claw back South Ossetia in a quick war. If the EU’s recent report is the beginning of a more creative policy toward such conflicts, it will have done much more than merely shed light on the murky origins of a five-day war.

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