A frozen conflict turns red hot in Georgia

The outbreak of fighting between Russia and Georgia has brought Europe to one of the most dangerous moments in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War. And, if a ceasefire is not arranged in the next 24 hours, matters can get far worse. Europe’s ‘frozen conflicts’ are now red-hot.

By Jonathan Eyal, Director of International Security Studies, RUSI

The US and European governments are desperately trying to broker a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia, after military clashes between the two neighbours yesterday left scores dead and many more injured. The stakes remain very high: Europe is facing its worst security crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago.

There is no doubt that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili planned his country’s military offensive to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games, a time when the world’s attention is focused elsewhere and most leaders are away from their capitals. But the seeds of trouble were planted many years ago and tension has been simmering for months.

The initial culprit is not Georgia, but Russia, which has never resigned itself to the loss of Georgia after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. One reason for the Russian behaviour is purely strategic: Georgia lies in the middle of the Caucasus, a key region sandwiched between the Middle East and the southern edges of Europe. Economic interests also play a part: although Georgia itself has few raw materials, its immediate neighbours have large deposits of oil and gas which the Russians wish to control. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Russia encouraged separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two of Georgia’s regions where people of different ethnic backgrounds live.

The residents of South Ossetia – where fighting has now erupted – feel particularly close to Russia. Although they are Christians, the Ossetians originate from Iran and further afield in Central Asia. They detest the Georgians and yearn for unity with Russia, where the rest of their brethren live. They also hold Russian passports and expect the government in Moscow to provide for their protection.

For more than a decade, a tense stand-off prevailed. The enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were policed by Russian soldiers, supposedly only until a diplomatic solution was found. But, since no solution was ever in sight, the world largely forgot about them: Abkhazia and South Ossetia became part of what diplomats politely referred to as Europe’s ‘frozen conflicts’.

Everything, however, began to change in 2003, when Mikhail Saakashvili became Georgia’s new president. Western educated and enjoying important political connections in the US (he counts Republican presidential candidate John McCain among his closest friends), Mr Saakashvili launched a concerted campaign to regain control over the separatist enclaves. This took the form of a rapid build-up in Georgia’s armed forces and an application to join NATO.

With hindsight, it is clear that Georgia’s application for NATO membership – made in April this year – was the final straw for Russia. Since then, the Russians have increased their military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and border clashes between Russian and Georgian troops became an almost daily occurrence.

In launching his military offensive now, President Saakashvili has taken a calculated gamble. He knows that his country cannot afford a long confrontation with Russia, but hopes that, if the Georgian military swiftly retakes South Ossetia, the Russians would have to swallow hard and accept this fact. Georgia would then be able to claim a triumph, and strengthen its claim to join the West and NATO, perhaps as early as the end of this year.

But nothing of the kind is likely to happen. Although the Russians were surprised by the Georgian attack, they have plenty of troops in the region to rebuff it. More importantly, Russia cannot afford to be humiliated in such a fashion: if it is knocked out of South Ossetia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - who made a name for himself as a Russian nationalist - will be politically finished.

So, the only question now is who will blink first. If the Georgians stop their military offensive, the Russians may refrain from massive retaliation. But, if they don’t then a Russian counter-offensive is guaranteed and an all-out war is inevitable.

The confrontation presents the West with an acute dilemma. On the one hand, there is considerable sympathy for Georgia in Europe and the US: the country is largely regarded as a victim of Russian bullying.

Yet, at the same time, there is also resentment about Georgian President Saakashvili’s reckless behaviour and fear that this may suck Europe into a wider confrontation with Russia.

The best hope is that a ceasefire is agreed, and that it holds long enough for broader mediation efforts to proceed. But two conclusions are already obvious. Europe’s ‘frozen conflict’ is now red-hot. And the West’s relations with Russia have seldom been in a more unpredictable phase.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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