Analysis: What Russia gained and lost in 'Little Victorious War'

This is the beginning of an apparently larger international effort to find a permanent resolution to the South Ossetian and Abkhazian problem.

putin hitler georgia 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
putin hitler georgia 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Five days after the four-year-long skirmishes between separatist South Ossetian forces and the Georgian military blew up into a full-scale war between Russia and Georgia, a French-brokered agreement was reached which involved the withdrawal of Georgian and Russian troops to the positions they held before the flare-up, although no timetable to the pullback was announced. This is the beginning of an apparently larger international effort to find a permanent resolution to the South Ossetian and Abkhazian problem. Russian leaders and the official Russian media called the war a "peace enforcement operation" aimed at stopping Georgia from "committing genocide in South Ossetia" and trumpeted the war as just punishment for Georgia and a clear-cut military and political victory for Russia. Neither assertion stands up to scrutiny. The self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seceded from Georgia in the early 1990s. In both cases, the Russian military provided crucial help to the secessionists. In practice, Russian policies vis-à-vis both republics amounted to de facto annexation: most residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were granted Russian citizenship, and various forms of economic aid were given to both republics. Moreover, Russian military contingents in both regions - officially the OSCE-sponsored peacekeeping force - provided shields against potential Georgian efforts to bring the seceding regions back under effective Georgia sovereignty. In the long term, this arrangement, while very convenient for Russia, was untenable. What unifies the fractious Georgian body politic is the determination to recover both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while secessionist leaders, encouraged by the successful Kosovo independence drive, have become much more aggressive in lobbying Russia to grant them official recognition. This simmering conflict could and ultimately was used for Russian domestic and international purposes. During the early months of Medvedev's presidency, the first signs of his efforts to weaken the stranglehold of the security establishment (the so-called siloviki) over key policy issues and to dissociate himself from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were apparent. By launching the war in the Caucasus, both Putin and the siloviki reasserted their primacy in domestic politics. In fact, it was clear that the orders were coming from Putin rather than president Medvedev, the constitutional commander-in-chief. Moreover, showing that constitutional legalities are of no consideration when affairs of state are at stake, Putin had not bothered to ask the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, for the constitutionally-required permission to use Russian troops outside sovereign Russian territory. More importantly, the invasion of Georgia was meant to be a forceful demonstration of resurgent Russia's role as a key player in world affairs and a regional superpower. By inflicting a military knock-out punch on Georgian President Saakashvili, perceived by Russia as a mere puppet of the US, and demanding a regime change in Tbilisi as a condition of a resolution to the crisis, Russia sent the message that it would neither tolerate hostile regimes in bordering states nor permit its economic hegemony in the region to be challenged (hence bombing the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline - which bypasses Russia). It remains to be seen whether the Russian use of force in Georgia achieved its desired goals. The first signs, however, point to the opposite. Rather than toppling Saakashvilli, Russia's overwhelming use of force unified, at least temporarily, Georgia's body politic behind the president. After the war, the status quo ante in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is no longer tenable and the policy choices facing Russia in the region - official annexation or recognition of their independence - would not be accepted internationally. Moreover, Russian troops can no longer be perceived as an evenhanded peacekeeping force, and this may bring pressure for their replacement with either UN or some other more neutral peacekeeping troops. Internationally, Russia's use of force could in the long run completely undermine Russian credibility when it speaks against the use of force in Iran or condemns potential future confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah (in 2006, Russia condemned in the harshest terms Israel's "excessive use of force"). Finally, as Israelis know well, bombing and invading small countries never looks good on TV in the West, however justified it might be. In the court of public opinion, Russia has already lost, something the independent Russian media was quick to acknowledge. Some in the US are already calling for a American boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and that may perhaps be only the beginning. The author is the Jay and Leonie Darwin Chair in Russian Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.