Russia may have won its lightning summer war against Georgia, but a growing number of experts in Moscow believe it may have squandered the fruits of victory by hastily extending diplomatic recognition to the breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"Russia now finds itself between a geopolitical rock and a diplomatic hard place," these experts say.
While stopping short of anti-Russian sanctions, most Western countries are roundly condemning Moscow for violating Georgia’s territorial integrity by recognising the rebel republics. On the other hand, Russia’s Asian friends, such as India and China, have pointedly refused to endorse its actions. Even close allies such as Belarus and Kazakhstan show no signs of following Moscow’s lead by establishing ties with the two separatist regions.
“We have found ourselves without sympathy in the world,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the leading Moscow foreign policy journal, Russia in Global Affairs. “We failed to convince the West that our actions were correct, while our use of preferred NATO terms such as ‘humanitarian intervention’ to explain our actions have seriously alarmed the Chinese.”
The problem is that — mostly for propaganda purposes — Moscow insisted that it was simply copying the Western military alliance NATO, which seized the Serbian province of Kosovo in a 1999 war in order to protect its mostly Albanian population from alleged “genocide”. Earlier this year, about 50 countries, mostly allies of the US, recognised Kosovo’s self-declared independence, though the little Balkan territory still has no chance of being admitted to the United Nations.
Russia, backed by India and China, argued that the West was violating key principles of international practice in Kosovo by involuntarily dismembering a sovereign state, Serbia, and rewarding ethnic separatism by granting the Kosovars a path to independence.
But when Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia a month ago, Moscow was quick to cry “genocide” and send in its tanks. Most of Russia’s friends, including China, have expressed guarded support for Moscow’s quick action against Georgian “aggression”.
Both India and China face potential separatist threats of their own. Delhi and Beijing were sympathetic to Russia in the past decade, when it crushed a secessionist challenge in Chechnya, but experts say both are aghast to see Moscow dumping all of its previously-expressed principles in a rush to recognise two tiny pro-Russian statelets in Georgia.
“We turned around and did the very thing we argued so strongly against in Kosovo,” says Sergei Strokan, a foreign policy expert with the Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant.
“No wonder everyone is looking at Russia and asking: What does it stand for now?”