The fighting barely lasted longer than one of those fierce thunderstorms that often sweep over the Caucasus Mountains in August, but the consequences of last week’s flash war between Russia and Georgia are likely to be far more lasting.
In a few short days of muscular military action and tough-guy diplomacy, Russia has changed the entire post-Soviet equation, largely in its own favour.
Written off as a basket case, especially after its economy crashed just ten years ago this month, an oil-rich Russia has since rebounded onto the world stage, looking for ways to reverse what it sees as a wave of Western encroachments into its traditional sphere of influence. These include the eastward march of Nato, which now threatens to encompass the former Soviet heartland States of Georgia and Ukraine, and Washington’s plans to install strategic anti-missile systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. Pro-democracy ‘colour revolutions’, which overthrew Moscow-friendly regimes in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), contributed heavily to the sense of beleaguerment in the Kremlin.
Moscow was looking for a pretext to act, foolishly given to it by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s decision to launch a full military offensive aimed at restoring control over the rebel republic of South Ossetia, enjoying de facto independence under Russian protection since 1992. Saakashvili was apparently hoping for a quick victory to present the world with a fait accompli before Moscow could react. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Within hours, the Russian 58th Army was pouring through the Roki Tunnel, which separates the Russian republic of North Ossetia from South Ossetia, and within days Moscow’s triumphant troops were at the gates of Tbilisi.
The crisis has its roots in the complex ethnic architecture arranged by Soviet social engineers, who created a hierarchy of ‘homelands’ for the erstwhile USSR’s myriad nationalities. The largest, like the Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians, got their own republics, recognised under international law, while smaller groups were awarded ‘autonomous republics’ and ‘national districts’ within these larger entities. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all its 15 republics got full independence and were admitted to the United Nations as sovereign States. But the smaller ethnic groups were expected to give up their aspirations for independence, which some refused to accept. Chechnya rebelled against Russia and was savagely put down by Moscow in two wars that spanned a decade.
However, even as it brutally suppressed its own separatists, the Kremlin continued to back pro-Russian rebels in other places. In the early 90s, the Russian army secured the separation of TransDniestria, a Slavic enclave in Moldova. Moscow-backed Armenia won a vicious war against neighbouring Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. In Georgia, Russian military ‘volunteers’ helped former Soviet ‘autonomous republics’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia win de facto independence.
Under the accords that ended Georgia’s bitter cycle of civil wars in the early 90s, Russia emerged as the peacemaker, with its troops assigned to guard the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian law entitles any former Soviet citizen to apply for a passport, and most of the inhabitants of the two ‘statelets’ acquired Russian citizenship, while Moscow officially continued to express respect for Georgia’s ‘territorial integrity’, holding out the prospect of cooperation with Georgia in finding a peaceful re-unification formula.
If the former Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze — who knew how to deal with Moscow — had remained in charge in Tbilisi, things might have turned out differently. But in 2003, a dramatic street revolt overthrew President Shevardnadze and brought the US-educated Saakashvili to power. He pledged to forcefully re-unify Georgia and take the little nation into Nato and the European Union. Since then, Russo-Georgian relations were an explosion waiting to happen. Saakashvili’s Napoleonic folly merely lit the fuse.
Now that Russia has won a crushing military victory over Georgia, deeply wounded Saakashvili’s political standing and likely ended that country’s Nato bid, we can expect to see more bold moves from Moscow. Though Russia’s relations with the West, particularly the US, are at their lowest post-cold war point, Russia has well-demonstrated to the region the consequences of defying the Kremlin. Though, following an EU-brokered peace-deal, the Russians have begun pulling out of Georgia, this is definitely not the Kremlin’s last salvo. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s clear warning to would-be aggressors is a clear sign that Russia is back as a power to be reckoned with.
Fred Weir is the Hindustan Times correspondent, Moscow.