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Tue. September 25, 2018
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Georgian-Russian crisis in South Ossetia: Geopolitics or identity?
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By Kavus Abushov The Russian-Georgian crisis starting from the 6th August has produced important political implications not only for Georgia, but the whole region and demonstrated the Kremlin’s manoeuvre potential in the Caucasus. It has proven that Russia is the relevant power in the region and has the ability to shape its security setting. Moreover, the crisis has indicated the impossibility of any military settlement of the conflicts in the region without Russia’s consent and given a message to the neighbouring Azerbaijan. Although both sides accuse each other of initiating the hostilities, the crisis started by Georgian attempt of regaining control of South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali by an overnight large-scale military operation. As a result of the operation, a large number of Ossetians have fled the region en masse and the death toll has been put at 2000 people. The offensive caused a sharp reaction from Russia, which has granted illicit support to the secessionist region in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia sent a large number of troops and military aircraft to South Ossetia, has deployed its Black Sea fleet and has been bombing Georgian military and civilian units in cities as Gori outside South Ossetia and Black Sea port Poti in inner Georgia. In spite of Georgia’s calls for a cease-fire, Russia has continued bombing Georgia’s territory, based on the grounds that Georgian troops are still targeting the Russian peace-keepers in South Ossetia. Meanwhile, the crisis has had an effect on Abkhazia, Georgia’s other problematic province, whose military potential is even larger. The Abkhaz forces have issued an ultimatum to the Georgian controlled part of Abkhazia Upper Kodori to leave the region. The Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, siding with the de facto authorities have warned the interim Georgian administration in Kodori of possible hostilities. Russian refusal to sign a cease-fire and continuing bombardment is clearly not aimed at Georgia’s invasion as the country’s leadership claim. All it is aimed at, is punishing Georgia for its attempts to take over the region, the latter defying Russian warning and a previous precedent in 2004. The Kremlin seems to be convinced that since Georgia started the offensive, it cannot get away with returning to the pre 6th August status-quo and there must clearly be a fine that Georgia should pay. That should include the withdrawal of Georgian troops from the Georgian controlled areas of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Tbilisi’s signature to a non-use of force agreement, and possible consent to the separation of both regions. Russia is, thus, intent on teaching a lesson to Georgia and sending a message to the West and pro Western states of the CIS. Further Russia has demonstrated how vulnerable Georgia is for a potential NATO membership and tried to delegitimise the Georgian administration. The crisis has indicated to a number of factors in Russia’s policies towards the Caucasus. First, these policies are driven by Russia’s as security concerns, great power interests and surprisingly identity related factors. Its primary security concerns in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is the spill-over potential of conflict from both regions to the Russian North Caucasus. Russia has made it clear that it in no way desires any military conflict in its southern borders, thus a forced reintegration of both regions into Georgian sovereignty is out of question. Its great power related interests, which are not less important than the former, include keeping NATO out and preserving Kremlin loyal satellite states in the Caucasus. Russia views the Caucasus as its regional shell and does not desire any alien presence in the region. The secessionist regions act as a kind of means for the Kremlin’s presence in the South Caucasus. Last, but not least, Russia’s policies are shaped by identity related factors, namely Russian sympathy towards the secessionist entities. Russia has a deep feeling of responsibility towards the peoples of the Caucasus and cannot indulge any bloodshed against the nations, which in the last 200 years have acted as the Kremlin’s loyal allies in the region. Determining the boundaries of the Caucasus arbitrarily, Moscow feels certain responsibility vis-à-vis the former autonomies. It seems however, that Russian move was more security and political motivated than identity. The Kremlin has been seeking to revenge the West for its stance on Kosovo, for Georgia’s integration to NATO and increased involvement in Russia’s near abroad and all these seemed to suit the coincidence of the crisis. As to Georgian ambitions, they have turned out to end up in complete failure. Georgian territory has been fiercely bombed, leaving hundreds of human casualties and economic damage, its right over South Ossetia has been put under question. The Saakashvili administration’s swift move to restore sovereignty in South Ossetia was presumably caused by an increasing dissatisfaction both in the public and in his political circles with the failure to establish control over both regions. The administration might have hoped to gain control over the region through a blitzkrieg or it might have hoped for a further internationalisation of the conflict and a possible replacement of the peacekeepers on its territory. Georgia however did not expect the course of the conflict to develop to such an extent that Russia would defy international calls for cease-fire and keep bombing inner Georgia continuously. Although Georgia has received the necessary support from the international community, this support has been irrelevant to the extent of Russia’s involvement in the region. The crisis has caused the harshest exchange of statements between Washington and Moscow in the last few years, and Russian intervention has been condemned internationally. Nonetheless, had the crisis lasted long and Russia bombed Tbilisi, neither the US, or the EU would have any tools to use as a levy against the Kremlin. In this context, Georgia seems to be the major victim of the crisis and this will have a negative impact upon Georgia’s efforts to restore its territorial sovereignty. Now that Kosovo’s independence has been recognised in spite of warnings by the Kremlin, and the Russian-US dialogue has deteriorated, Russia might take the unilateral decision to recognise both Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s sovereignty on the grounds that Georgia has lost the moral right over these regions. In terms of regional implications of the crisis, Russia has demonstrated how serious it is in its intentions in the Caucasus and that no other great power has the ability to exert influence over this tiny region’s security issues. Although the existing oil and gas pipelines were outside the bombing area, their survival throughout the crisis has indicated that the Kremlin has given tribute to its relations with Azerbaijan, Turkey and the West, and its military operations served a peculiar goal, rather than the broad agenda of destabilising the region or overthrowing the Georgian Government. That the crisis occurred at a period of deteriorating relations between the US and Russia on issues of missile defence in Eastern Europe, US support for Georgia’s NATO membership as well as US training of Georgia’s military, sends the message that Russia is keen on power demonstration in the CIS, in particular in the conflict driven South Caucasus. In conclusion, the overall picture is, whether the crisis had been planned by Russia in advance, as some experts claim or not, Russia is the major winner out of the crisis. And it seems, although Russia has no interest in a peaceful or military resolution of the conflicts in the South Caucasus.

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