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Three Years After The War With Georgia, What Has Russia Gained?

It's been three years now since the Russian Army crushed the Georgian forces, which on orders from President Mikheil Saakashvili invaded South Ossetia on August 8, 2008. As a result of the war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, formerly breakaway regions of Georgia, as fully independent states, deploying Russian military bases on their territory. What has Russia gained in these three years after the war? What does the future hold for South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Is folding South Ossetia into Russia a viable proposition? Will Saakashvili survive Medvedev? What are the chances for his removal from power?

In a recent interview President Dmitry Medvedev called his decision to repel Georgia's aggression and recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia his most difficult and most significant foreign policy decisions. Three years down the road, it makes sense to ask what Russia has gained as a result of that policy.

On the one hand, the geopolitical and security gains have been sizable. Georgia has been denied the wherewithal to launch military operations against South Ossetia and Abkhazia; its military has been destroyed and humiliated. The security of the two breakaway states has been guaranteed. Georgia's leadership has been discredited internationally as reckless and dangerous adventurists (after multiple international investigations, no one in the world questions the fact that it was Saakashvili who launched the war). Georgia's prospects for membership in NATO and the EU have evaporated.

The Georgian opposition has mobilized to unseat Saakashvili and his team in the parliamentary elections next May. The Russian military drew valuable lessons from the operation, which expedited the much needed army reforms.

On the other hand, Russia's geostrategic liabilities from the war have also been significant, apart from the cost in human lives lost and money spent. The only other states to follow Russia's lead in recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have been minor players, including Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. None of the former Soviet states, not even Belarus, Russia's partner in the Union State, recognized the new entities. All maintain cozy relations with Georgia.

All major Western powers view Russia's military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as "occupation of Georgia's territory," and periodically call upon Russia to withdraw its forces to the pre-war boundaries. Georgia has been enjoying its newly found leverage on Russia by blocking its accession to the WTO (a much coveted prize for the Kremlin) on the grounds that it needs to police the border crossings with Russia on South Ossetian and Abkhazian territory.

Moscow is spending enormous amounts of money in reconstruction aid to the two republics, with rampant corruption. It has met stiff opposition in Abkhazia to Russian land purchases. Calls are growing in Abkhazia for a truly independent policy and engagement with the EU (the latter has moved toward "engagement without recognition" policy). In both republics, Moscow is facing presidential elections within the next couple of months (Abkhazia's president Sergei Bagapsh died of lung cancer last May), and has been experiencing difficulties in promoting Moscow-favored candidates.

And in Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have survived the aftershocks of the war, routed the opposition and is now as entrenched as ever, preparing to make a Vladimir Putin-style transition from the presidency to the newly empowered post of prime minister, as his last term expires in early 2013.

In an indication of Russian leadership's growing uneasiness toward the country's options for the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recently suggested that South Ossetia, were its people to so desire and vote for it, may one day rejoin Russia as part of North Ossetia. President Medvedev cautiously demurred, saying in an interview that no legal preconditions exist at this point to exercise such an option. In Abkhazia, no doubt, Putin's statement has been met with horror as its elites are bent on building an independent state and have never dreamed of folding into Russia.

What has Russia gained in these three years after the war? What does the future hold for South Ossetia and Abkhazia? What are the realistic options for their development and international recognition? Is folding South Ossetia into Russia a viable proposition? What kind of international response would it have, were it to be implemented? What are the prospects of Abkhazia's recognition by the EU and the United States, given its more substantive claim to independent statehood? Will Saakashvili survive Medvedev? What are the chances for his removal from power? Would Tbilisi really block Russia's membership in the WTO despite Washington's strong interest in seeing Russia's accession completed on Barack Obama's watch?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Let us review some relevant facts. By August 2008 a cease-fire had been in place in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for 14 years. This cease-fire was maintained by multinational peacekeepers, which included Georgian, as well as Russian military, in numerically equal contingents.

After a steady increase in Georgian military assets in the area (using a staging base near Gori), Saakashvili ordered a rocket artillery barrage on the main city of South Ossetia and other locations, just after midnight on August 8. Georgian guns and later, tanks, fired on people who the Georgians claimed to be fellow citizens. The Georgian component of the peacekeepers actually opened fire on their Russian colleagues.

The Georgian assault caused many casualties among Russian peacekeepers, although even one casualty would be legally sufficient for a military response. Let us suppose something similar involved American peacekeepers, though it doesn't require any imagination at all. There are many convincing case studies about the U.S. responses in these situations. For example, in 1983 U.S. operation "Urgent Fury" was initiated in Grenada with far less provocation than the events of August 8 in South Ossetia. In South Ossetia, Russia did not initiate hostilities and therefore one really cannot speak of its "gains." The conflict in August 2008 was not about "gains."

Note that during the previous 14 years, Russia did not recognize South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's separatism from Georgia, and used its resources to maintain a cease-fire and to advance a peaceful resolution to separatist claims. Evidently, after the events of August 2008, it is inconceivable that the two former autonomous regions of Soviet Georgia would be willing to remain associated with the new Republic of Georgia.

For the same reasons that Georgia separated from the Soviet Union, South Ossetia and Abkhazia can separate from Georgia. To claim that these are "occupied territories" is the same as pretending that the terrain where the troops of the Comte de Rochambeau were deployed at Yorktown was British territory "occupied" by the French.

Russia's present investments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are no different than American investments to support many of its allies and associates, including the Republic of Georgia itself ­ where U.S. assistance of diverse kinds, including military, was delivered considerably before the August 2008 events, even before the "Rose Revolution."

In fact, Russia did gain a very important strategic objective. It was evident for some time before the August 8, 2008 events that the Republic of Georgia resembled a rogue state, both domestically and internationally. One would expect that by now no one would want instability in the region, least of all the countries that are Georgia's neighbors. Russia's decisive, and ultimately self-restrained action (Tbilisi is indeed an easily achievable military objective) was instrumental in stabilizing the entire region.

Concerning the WTO ­ that organization needs Russian membership perhaps even more than the vanity-driven aspirations of some Russian foreign trade businesspeople. If the WTO is willing to accept that an economic feather-weight member may veto the presence of a major player in the global economy ­ this is not very flattering for the WTO. At this time, Russia has a robust and lucrative foreign trade in many bilateral relationships, including the sale of commodities to Georgia itself (compare with the decades of a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba). If Russia does not need the WTO to be successful in foreign trade, then maybe other countries may note Russia's example. Maybe the WTO is needed for weak economies only. In any case, Russia can afford to wait, while Georgia's situation is precarious.

On the global scale, the Georgia conflict is not a matter of significant "gains" or "losses" for Russia.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, Washington, DC

In the nicely balanced introduction, I find one point that needs correction. It wasn't the Russo-Georgian war that stopped Georgia from joining NATO. What stopped it were, firstly, Germany and France. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy blocked George Bush Administration's push for a membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia. Their opposition antedated the war.

The second factor was Ukraine's election. It made the West finally face the fact that Viktor Yushchenko's line on NATO did not represent the will of the Ukrainian people, and that pushing for Ukraine to join was counterproductive. This served to redesign NATO's overall expansion strategy. NATO refocused on expanding along more productive lines ­ partnerships and tasks elsewhere in the world.

Thirdly and most importantly, it was Barack Obama's election and the "reset" doctrine. If John McCain had been elected ­ e.g., if the economy hadn't tanked ­ the Russia-Georgia war would have been used in the opposite way: as a reason for insisting far more strongly on Georgian membership in NATO.

In my experience, few Westerners were "brought to reality" by that war; far more were brought by it to a heightened level of suspicion toward Russia. In this, it is comparable to the effect of the Kosovo war on the Russian mind: the ill-feeling fades with time on the surface but remains underneath, and is easily revivified by any further push on the matter. Even today, the "reset" remains weaker and colder due to the legacy of the war.

It was the Ukrainian election, not the Georgian war, that brought a fair number of Westerners in touch with the reality in Russia (and brought Russians back to reality on democracy, as they saw the West accept Viktor Yanukovich's electoral victory and support his inauguration despite attempts by Yulia Tymoshenko to block it). The wish to instead credit the consequences to Russia's muscle-flexing is understandable psychologically, but probably not the best advertisement for the state of the Russian psyche.

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