The Last Resort and the Lesser Evil

By Andrei P. Tsygankov


Forthcoming in Russia Profile special issue on the Caucasus

The recent events in the Caucasus reflect failure of the existing international system to maintain peace and stability on the regional and, potentially, global scale. All parties – Georgia, Russia and the West – are responsible for the crisis, but to varying degree. In contrast to Thomas Friedman who awarded the gold medal for failure to Russia, the silver medal to Georgia and the bronze to the United States – as if the conflict were an Olympic event – I see Russia as the least responsible for the crisis. Military response to Tbilisi’s attack on Tskhinvali and recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia independence were bad yet necessary choices.

Any decision to go to war is indicative of an international system’s failure to preserve peace. It is clear, however, that Russia did not start the military confrontation in the Caucasus. Sources as diverse as intelligence agencies, human rights organizations, the Georgian ex-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Western government analysts agree that the aggression came from Tbilisi. The Kremlin had no choice but to rely on the last resort to prevent further violence in the region, protect those suffering from Georgia’s aggression and defend Russia’s historically gained reputation of guarantor of peace in the Caucasus. Charges that Russia was preparing for war by concentrating troops in the region or taking advantage of South Ossetian provocations against Georgians do not constitute evidence of Russia’s decision to go to war – the fact remains that it was Mikheil Saakashvili who ordered fire while Russia returned it. As to war preparations, Russia would have been negligent not to prepare given the Saakashvili’s track record of constant provocations against Russia and his refusal to repudiate the use of force against the autonomies.

Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia too can hardly be called a good decision because it followed the West’s recognition of Kosovo establishing yet another dangerous precedent for redrawing political map in Europe, Eurasia and Russia. However, Russia hardly had a better choice available. Georgia’s behavior in the region encouraged by its powerful patrons in the West made it imperative for Russia to reinforce its military presence in the region. During the post-Cold War era, the weakened Russia was unable to respond to the West’s geopolitical advances, and Russia’s reputation and security interests have suffered a serious blow. Following the Georgia’s aggression and the large scale violence against civilians in South Ossetia, the only way for Russia to defend its interests and prevent further bloodshed was to recognize the autonomies.

Procrastination with recognition would have increased international pressures on Russia to replace its peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which in practice may have amounted to empowering foreign forces with guarding Russia’s own security. Some say Russia should have waited longer, but hasn’t the defensive tactics of playing on West’s terms and expecting its understanding of Russia’s interests been partly responsible for the crisis?

The historically confirmed lesson here is that the international law only works when it is supported by viable international institutions and balance of power. No viable institutions exist in the Caucasus, and the balance of power has been long violated by NATO’s decision to expand its military infrastructure at the expense of Russia’s interests. The international law was silent in the Caucasus because it had been silent when Yugoslavia and Iraq were attacked by the Western powers without the United Nations’ approval.

Russia has little to be triumphant about. Although Russia has generally prevailed in the crisis, President Dmitri Medvedev is correct to emphasize the collective nature of the problem and to propose a collective solution involving European peacekeepers. Russia’s share of responsibility for the crisis in the Caucasus is connected with some shameful decisions made during Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s eras that have seriously undermined statehood and knocked foreign policy off balance. Russia’s message to the world has been often confusing, and its policy makers have frequently replaced intellectual preparations with improvisation and PR. In the meantime, the nation’s fundamentals are not strong and include deteriorating physical and social infrastructure, still underfunded military, low living standards and insufficiently diversified economy.

The Kremlin must now decide how to continue its international assertiveness. One option is to prepare to fight the expansion of NATO by mobilizing the required resources, including the hard power, and making it impossible for Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance under any circumstances. That option involves claiming control over ports and strategic territories in the area. It is likely to lead to a military mobilization and a large-scale violence making it extremely difficult to stay the course of economic modernization and normalization with the West. The second option is to minimize use of force by deploying Russia’s soft power – growing economy, historical, linguistic and cultural ties – for defending its legitimate interests in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The Kremlin has barely started doing so, and it could begin by laying out a vision of a confident moral power that seeks to protect values and interests of Russia and those who gravitate toward it.