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Growing friendship between Georgia and West may explain conflict with Russia

map showing russia and georgia 300 pixels, 2008

This post first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 11, 2008 - On Monday, the crisis in Georgia continued to escalate. Russia opened a new military front by taking over an army base in Abkhazia, a pro-Russian separatist enclave, while Georgians struggled to recover the separatist region of South Ossetia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili accused Russia of "ethnic cleansing," and Russia ignored Georgia's offer of a ceasefire. Questions loom as to how far the Russian army will penetrate Georgia proper.

Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University and Stephan Sestanovich of Columbia University spoke about the escalation, potential consequences, and plausible U.S. responses in a conference call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Friday morning's reports of violence may have shocked some, but Sestonavich and Kupchan say that the war was no surprise to those closely following the region.

Sestanovich said that American officials have worried about an escalation for some time. "The precipitating event was that Georgia had moved to the capital city of South Ossetia, preceded by shelling into Georgian villages, preceded by other pressures in Georgia ... including shooting down drones." Georgia has refused to recognize South Ossetia -- and Abkhazia -- as independent states.

Kupchan said the conflict grew from Saakashvili's increasing closeness with the United States. "Saakashvili has been pushing the edge of the envelope in terms of his relationship with Russia, speaking of reincorporating these regions into Georgia. Saakashvili got too close to the United States, and the United States got too close to him. It made him feel that at the end of the day the West would come to his assistance when he got into trouble. That's why he made a very serious miscalculation last week and sent troops into South Ossetia and tried to take the capital."

How serious is this incursion?

"Western governments are still coming to terms with how to understand what is happening," said Sestanovich. "Is this just an outburst of instability? Or are we thinking about typical tribal warfare, or real war and real conquest, and a completely different picture of Russia from what we've had in the past? I don't know."

Kupchan said that "we'll get a sense in the next few days as to just how far Russia is going to go. Russia is steadily climbing a ladder of escalation. It could have restricted (itself) to kicking out troops in South Ossetia. Is Russia going to go outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or is it going to stop? One could understand if Russia pushes the Georgian military out of the two regions, but it may also create an exclusion zone. ... If Russia goes to Georgia's capital Tbilisi, that's obviously a more serious set of circumstances than if it stops at where it goes today. Already I feel it's fair to say Russia has used disproportionate force."

Potential Outcomes

Sestanovich said, "Georgia and the West are seeking is a ceasefire. That's the best outcome. Saakashvili said he has signed a unilateral ceasefire offered by the French foreign minister. Russians are not interested in a ceasefire but in surrender."

Ethnic Hostility: The Kosovo Comparison

When Kosovo seceded from Serbia in March, Russia threatened to stir the pot in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Sestanovich said that since Kosovo's secession in March and the NATO summit in April, Russia has put increased pressure on Georgia. "At what point would the two sides bump up against each other in a way that would escalate? We now see how that has materialized."

Kupchan blames both parties. "It's too easy to conclude that the bear is back and here goes Russia again -- invading and occupying its neighbors. But going back several years, both sides have been baiting each other, in particular since March when Kosovo seceded from Serbia and since talk about Ukraine and Georgia entering NATO."

Kupchan added that American officials and analysts underestimated the Russian reaction to Kosovo. "This conflict could stem from disgruntlement with the fact that the world seems to have ignored Russia. They hold a principled view that the situation isn't all that different from the situation in Kosovo. Minority groups were persecuted by a larger nation. So if Kosovo can secede, why not these regions, the Russians think."

Georgia's Relationship with the West

Kupchan said Saakashvili received mixed signals from the West about incorporating the two regions into Georgia. "Privately there were moments when the administration would ... try and keep him on a shorter leash. In more public statements, the opposite was the case. Americans talk about Georgia as a beacon of freedom ... Did Saakashvili really think that NATO aircraft would come to Georgia's assistance should Russia invade South Ossetia? Part of the problem is that Saakashvili did get a little bit too big for his britches. Both Russians and Georgians have been playing a game of chicken. Saakashvili has been riding on a one-speed bicycle and Russians have been riding tanks. Saakashvili tempted fate despite the vast asymmetry in power in part because he was led to overreach by friendship from the West."

Sestanovich disagreed, saying the international community told Georgia that military action would not be good. "Leaders told Georgia they shouldn't do it, that they should calmly try to develop a diplomatic track. There's nothing mixed about that. It wasn't: Why not take them by surprise? It was really that we don't want this to overheat. We want to see whether there's a new track possible."

Potential U.S. Responses

Events in Georgia put the U.S. in an "awkward" position, said Kupchan. "Georgian troops are in Iraq. The U.S. has a hundred plus trainers in Georgia. There isn't a lot that the United States can realistically do. It can say cease-fire, it can engage in diplomacy, but it's very hard to think that the United States could contemplate intervention on Georgia's behalf.

Sestanovich said that Russia's demonstration of military power to break a former Soviet republic signifies a dent in stability of the "framework the U.S. brought to governing the post Cold War world. When one country conquers another, it's typically regarded as pretty serious. ... Georgia is not a U.S. ally, as has been described in the media, but there is clearly a budding relationship here, demonstrated to be not enough to protect Georgia's security."

Joy Resmovits in an intern at the Beacon.