Georgia and Russia appear on a collision course over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi stands to lose more than it could ever gain by adhering to confrontational policies.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili spoke ominously about the future. He said that a "fresh roadmap" for settling the so-called frozen conflicts was needed one that called for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers with an international force. Russia has made it clear that such a change is unacceptable. But Saakashvili said in his UN speech; "if we fail to unite in support of new mechanisms to advance peace we give a green light to those who seek otherwise and we risk plunging the region into darkness and conflict."
Several preconditions for conflict are already evident in the region. For example, both Moscow and Tbilisi regularly accuse each other of war-mongering. Georgian officials believe that Moscow's support for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is part of a Russian plan aimed at curtailing Georgian sovereignty. Conversely, Moscow is wary about Tbilisi's recent move to solidify its hold over the Kodori Gorge. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Many political analysts wonder if Russia is seeking a pretext to whip up a conflict. They cite Moscow's tacit support for the independence referendum in the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, as well as an upcoming plebiscite in South Ossetia, as proof of malevolent intentions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down have tried to establish Kosovo as a precedent that would enable the international community's endorsement of break-away efforts by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Trans-Dniester region.
Beyond mutual recrimination, both sides have incessantly organized provocations against the other. In recent months, there have been numerous instances of military maneuvering and skirmishes in South Ossetia. Georgia has angered Moscow by detaining peacekeepers for alleged visa violations. Moscow, meanwhile, has outraged Tbilisi with the imposition of economic sanctions, in particular a ban on wine imports. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Either South Ossetian forces or Russian forces escalated tension in early September by shooting at a Georgian helicopter carrying Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili.
Each side's public and private statements reek with contempt for the other side. Such sentiments, it must be stressed, can cloud rational decision-making. Because the Georgian issue is now a personal one for Russia and vice versa, and given the intense dislike of Russian and Georgian leaders have for each other, there are good reasons to worry that one or the other side could easily make a misstep and ignite an armed conflict.
Overconfidence is particularly apparent on the Georgian side. Georgia, with assistance from the United States and NATO, has significantly improved the professionalism of its armed forces. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But the Georgian military continues to suffer from serious defects, and there are not many reasons to believe that it could currently stand up well to the rigors of war. Some Georgians have needlessly riled Russia by questioning Moscow's will to defend its interests. Such behavior serves to reinforce the Russian view of Georgia as being home to lazy and empty braggarts.
Any Georgian move to reconquer either Abkhazia or South Ossetia would stand to backfire on Tbilisi. An unsuccessful military campaign not only would crush any hopes of a political deal that could bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into Georgia's fold, it would likely deal a crippling blow to Tbilisi's efforts to join NATO, and could additionally bring about the collapse of President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration.
Georgia should not be lulled into a false sense of security by counting on well-meaning, but uninformed statements by American commentators, legislators, or self-appointed friends of Georgia. In the event of a war, Russia would probably disregard American pleas for restraint vis-à-vis Georgia, and would aim to achieve a decisive victory, not only to crush the Saakashvili administration, but also to try to humiliate Washington. Indeed, the very idea that Washington would risk conflict with Moscow over South Ossetia is a delusional. Georgians also shouldn't be fooled by the relatively easy success of the Kodori Gorge operation in the summer of 2006 against a rebel paramilitary group. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Georgian troops would likely encounter far better armed and organized forces in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia.
The late Alexander Orlov, who defected from the Soviet Secret Police to the United States and later wrote a Handbook on Intelligence and Guerrilla Warfare, observed that the first rule is not to respond to provocation. It is obvious that Russian policy for a long time has sought to provoke Georgia, either to punish it or to goad it into taking an ill-considered step, such as attacking Russian forces, or the Abkhazians or South Ossetians directly.
The stronger Georgia becomes internally through reform and legitimacy, the more it has to offer its former provinces, and the less able Russia would be to threaten it. Here the lesson of the Baltic states is instructive. Some nationalists in the Baltic states wanted to redraw boundaries, or demanded reparations from Russia. In the end, however, reason prevailed, and the Baltic states refrained from taking confrontational action. Today, of course, the Baltic states are members of NATO and the EU and enjoy grater security and prosperity than ever before.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.