Georgia: War with Russia?

The South Caucasus has always been a volatile and unstable region riven by ethnic conflict and instability. This has especially been the case since the breakup of the Soviet Union and not least because the region is often considered the gateway between Europe and Central Asia, as well as where the competing interests of the West and Russia collide.

For those readers that have no idea where the Caucasus is, The Reference Frame provides a handy color-coded guide.

Look at the map. Start with the yellow disk, a global perspective. We are discussing the piece of land (blue rectangle) in between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. There are Caucasus Mountains over there as well as many cacophonic pairs of nations. The region is as dangerous for the peace as the Balkans on the opposite side of the Black Sea. […]

This is definitely the case in Georgia where tensions with Russia have increased to the extent that Reuters reports that the battle of words between Tbilisi and Moscow might yet turn into war over the breakaway and defacto independent [Georgian] region of Abkhazia.

The increased tension follows last month's apparent downing of a Georgian drone allegedly by a Russian MiG-29 and reports that Russian troops are being sent to Abkhazia in case of a Georgian attempt to re-take the territory by force. As Hot Air explains, Russia and Georgia are playing brinkmanship again, but this time the consequences are uncertain.

Russia and Georgia have played at brinksmanship for quite a while, and while neither of them would benefit from a war, the tussle over Abkhazia might inadvertently set one in motion. Abkhazia is actually a secondary issue for Russia, although not a false premise for their policy. They see Abkhazia as within their sphere of influence, but Putin really wants an end to NATO expansion at the expense of Russia.


Both Moscow and Tbilisi are playing hardball over Russian attempts to keep Georgia within its political orbit. It demonstrates that the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed consequences that have not yet fully played out, and that the “end of history” was anything but. If Putin and his hardliners insist on maintaining a quasi-empire in the breakaway republics, and if the West continues to counter those impulses, a flash point seems almost inevitable.

The Oil and the Glory, the blog of former Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalist Steve Levine who has covered Central Asia and the Caucasus for over a decade, wonders why the situation has emerged now.

What is Russia's move really all about? Surely it's not concern over Abkhaz security — a Georgian military attack in order to bring the region back into the Georgian fold verges on ludicrous, mainly since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili knows he would lose, either to the Abkhaz themselves or a predictable Russian counter-offensive.

Is Putin simply demonstrating yet again that Russia won't be pushed around? Is he bestowing an image-building conflict on his successor, in the way that Chechnya built up Putin's own nationalist credentials when he took power in 1999 with a popularity rating of 2%?

Others are also asking why the increased tensions are happening, but from a different perspective. TOL Georgia, for example, thinks it is not coincidental that parliamentary elections are due to be held in the former Soviet republic later this month. Tensions with Russia usually result in increased support at home for the Georgian authorities, it says.

If there are elections in Georgia, you may bet some major scandal will take place with Russia — most probably over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

There was a spy scandal before the elections in 2006; then there was President Saakashvili’s brave intervention in a brawl in Gunmukhuri camp and finally now there is the downing of the Georgian drone and Russia’s decision to legalize ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


It is not to say of course that Russian and Georgian authorities somehow act in accord. No, far from that. Just that Russians are consistently aggressive and if they wanted to see Saakashvili leave Georgia, they would not pitch him the major international incidents right before the elections.

Registan, however, considers that the latest Georgian-Russian spat has more to do with other factors, and not least support from the West for Kosovo's Independence as well as problems with Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

This is probably tied to Georgia’s quest to block Russia’s membership in the WTO. Georgia has suspended its bilateral talks with Russia, which are a condition of Russia’s WTO ascension, on the condition that Moscow halt its growing ties with the separatist governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And now Russia steps forward with talks of Georgia invading Abkhazia.

It’s not that the timing is too convenient, which it is, but that is might not matter. Both Georgia and Russia have a habit of badly overplaying their hand in the battle for sympathetic ears in the West. In this case, Russia has a particularly weak hand—its fondness for separatist movements appears not to extend to either Kosovo, or Chechnya.

Foreign Policy Passport isn't too concerned about the possibility of war between Georgia and Russia, although it does acknowledge that the situation could get out of hand. Indeed, it quotes one Russian commentator: “Recall how World War I began. […] This scenario could be repeated in the Caucasus,” but still concludes that the escalation is likely just belligerent posturing.

Despite the inflammatory rhetoric, it still seems unlikely to me that Georgia would actually go to war with its much larger and militarily superior neighbor. Since Georgia is looking for NATO protection and Russia wants keep Georgia out of NATO at any cost, the war of words seems tailored for an audience in Washington and Brussels. Both sides have a vested interest in the rest of the world perceiving the threat of war as genuine.

In a volatile region such as the South Caucasus where conflict always runs the risk of overspilling into neighboring countries and destabilizing more than just the immediate area, let's hope that remains the case.


  • dnc

    During the night of Aug. 8, Georgia at the beginning of the massive bombardment of South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, as well as the nearby settlements. As a result, innocent civilians have been killed over 1000 people including women, children and the elderly. Among the 12 Russian peacekeepers killed more than 50 wounded. People should know the truth!

  • Dmitry

    People of the world. You deceive! World mass media conduct propagation of a false information.

    07.08.2008 at 22:00 Georgia has attacked South Ossetia. At 3:30 08.08.2008 tanks of the Georgian armies have entered into city Tskhinvali.

    Artillery bombardment all the day long proceeded, fights with use of tanks and heavy combat material, both against ossetic armies, and against peace inhabitants were conducted. 1400 civil people already were lost.

    The Russian peacemakers have arrived to South Ossetia in the evening 08.08.2008 for settlement of the conflict and prompting of the world in republic and protection of the Russian citizens living on territory of South Ossetia. Defendind of Osetia is the duty of peacemakers. Because Georgia started the war and broke peace.

    Now Tskhinvali is lying in ruins… Many children are dead… Do you want to support Georgia and kill civil people?

  • Maxx

    I Russian. And at us in the country bears do not walk the streets also not all drink vodka since morning and till the evening. Moreover not all country hates America and Americans and we do not want war. I understand your indignation after all your opinion on a situation is formed by news and the TV. However having seen sites BBC and CNN, and also articles with descriptions of occurring events in a zone Georgian – the Osset conflict I have come to a conclusion that at the situation description many facts are considerably deformed by your correspondents and leaders of news, and many is rather considerable, practically on 180 degrees. Russia is shown practically as an aggressor attacked on poor and defenceless Georgia which only put things in order in the province, pacifying as is told on your site of “separatists”. While Russia has acted with the help to fraternal people to reflect attack of aggressors and to prevent occupation of Ossetia by the Georgian armies. That further would lead to civil war in region, and Georgia inspired with success certainly would continue the party of other unrecognized republic of Abkhazia in aggression. That does not speak that Russia is interested in the peace, and all forces are directed on that not to allow Georgia to grasp independent (let and not recognised) republic that in itself is a crime against humanity. The main news on site BBC at present is the information on an attack of the Russian air forces on Gori, also it is mentioned victims among the peace population of Georgia. However about more than 2000!!! The killed Ossetins why that the information is extremely poor. About that that Georgia the first has launched war having attacked at night a peace city also is ignored, are silent also fighters of special groups of Georgia which shower with pomegranates of women and children of buildings escaping in cellars from aggressors. Certainly the truth do not write and in Russian-speaking editions, there too muddle the information, demonizing Saakashvilis and show a situation from foreshortenings favourable that the public opinion of citizens of Russia developed against Georgia and the USA supporting it. Simply understand that at each medal two parties and it is impossible to judge on a situation leaning against news presented English-speaking to mass media

  • Seliverstaff

    Sorry, this may be not on the theme… but I am really interested in saying the truth…
    People, listen please. I have a poor English, but it is my duty to tell the truth. Nowadays American and world press say that Russia attacked poor Georgia. That is not true. My old friend lives there and he approves the info from Russian TV. Georgians attacked Osetia, maybe it’s a plan of CIA, currently it is not known. Georgian artillery degan to strike the Russian MP base in Osetia when the Olympic games just began.There where only few Russians, but they managed to stay alive and to confront Georgians during operation of taking Chinvali. All videos, which are translated as a Russian attack on Tbilisi-are fake. That is Georgian aircraft attacking Chinvali. Only on that night 1500 Osetians where dead… Awfull. It is proved, that Georgian army killed wounded Russian MP’s and Osetian kids/women. Kisten for Osetians themselvs-tyey are grateful to Russian soldiers, who protected them. Look where they wanna go-it is Russia. Obviousely Russian side has the true in this argue. If you protect Saakashvili-you are a fascist. That means you protect Hitler-because Saakashvili initianed genocide of Osetians. All other news are US fake.

  • Katya

    All you people, who said that Russia is guilty are SO wrong. You, sit in front of your computers somewhere in the place where you hardly hear anything about the war! I’m russian, and it’s clear for everybody here that the USA gave some directions to Georgia to attack South Osetia. And georgian government is totally stupid if they think that they can fight Russia.

  • ChrisJ

    Dmitry, I know for a fact that the reason Georgia went into Ossetia was due to separatists who kept firing on Georgia. provocation my friend. Plus Russia wants to control the region meaning no NATO. Not to mention the oil pipelines that Russia owns and the one it does not that runs from the Caspian sea to the Mediterranean sea.

    Plus Russia wants to send this war as a warning to Israel for having built a factory to upgrade the georgian military.

  • Bapi

    If Iraq – Iran can be penalized so that they do not become strong against Isreal. Russia too has the right to consolidate its position in its nieghbourhood and seek guartee to its security from nato forces so close to it. Lets not forget that this is what U.S.A. tried to do when Cuba went for stragetic partner with U.S.S.R. . The world really needs Russia to become more secure and strong.

  • Snegovique

    Dear friends. Please do save yourselves from calling or meaning someone a fascist. Here in Russia I watch the unseemly situation of one-sided interpretation of conflict. I suppose the same problem is in the West countries too. It’s our own average citizen’s fault. We are not enough emphatical to demand the opposite information. We all are sure Hitler, BinLaden are the bad guys, but who of us know their ideas. These examples seem as simple. But Saddam, Milosevich, NorthKoren leader, Akhmadinejad, don’t you consider them new evil incarnation. Remember we didn’t learn their opinions or ideas or points of view without someones interpretation. Where’s the freedom of speech? As about Russian-Georgian conflict it seems for me as any subject of global politics must manage adhering to the rules equal for all. When it wouldn’t take place it might cause the priority of power. Thus I am by Russian side in this case (not in any), because the law was not broken. More to say russians have no possibilities not to exercise their right to use the force and ignore georgian abuse of sovereignty.

  • Rob

    If South Ossetia can become independent then so can Chechnya.They are the same situation. Putin – the real leader – should spend money on decreasing Russain poverty not military conquest.

  • The Georgian government did not start the war and did not fire the first shot!

    The Georgian government has been saying since beginning of August 2008 that the situation in South Ossetia is escalating and the Russian “peacekeepers” are staging provocations together with illegal armed forces of South Ossetian separatist regime. They started killing Georgian police officers and firing artillery shells at the Georgian villages located in South Ossetia, but the world was preoccupied with getting ready for the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 Olympics.

    When the Georgian government officials told the Europeans in Brussels that we were at the brink of war, the Europeans politely warned the Georgians not to use the word “war” in the city of Brussels, because they do not like the word “war.” It seems that old Europe is getting older each day and with the age, because numerous warnings and cries by the Georgian officials fell on the deaf ears of old Europe. Never mind the fact that it took Hitler conquering Poland and Czechoslovakia, before the Western Europe realized this was a war.

    And what about the Americans? The American society is in the midst of elections, the Democrats want to see Europe take more responsibility for security in Caucasus region, the Republicans are divided and worried about gay marriage and abortion rights… The friends of Georgia in new Europe are trying everything to force the old Europe take harsher approach towards Russia, but Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas and oil.

    Giving up on a young democracy does not seem plausible for the Europeans, but the old Europe is scared of the new Russian bear. The new Russia is controlled by a xenophobic psychopath who has decided to break all the rules of the game, in order to change those rules. And the question comes: how can you stop a bully? Everyone can keep condemning the Russian government, but that paper will wind up in Putin’s toilet again… The only way to stop a bully is bully up against the bully – simple rule of life.

    With the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Russian government has proven the world that they will violate international laws whenever they feel like it and they will use aggression in the name of peace as they did in Prague 1968. If the world would not stand up for Georgia, who will be the next prey of the hungry Russian bear? Maybe Ukraine? Or Moldova? Or who knows… The Russian government is as unpredictable as the weather in England…

    The Georgian people are united and stand united, we have survived the onslaught by Mongols, Persians, Arabs, Turk-Seljuks throughout the history and we have still survived and we are not scared of the Russian bear either.

    Just last question to Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin, if you are so concerned about the freedom of small minorities, why not recognize the independence of Chechnya? Then Daghestan? Then Ingushetia? And then all the other autonomous republics where the citizens do not even speak Russian? Think about that at first and then lets discuss the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after 300,000 Georgian refugees return to their own homes.

    And to my fellow Abkhazian and South Ossetian brothers and sisters. Yes, there will be dancing and celebration in Sokhumi and Tskinvali, Yes you will be smiling and waving flags – Georgian flags of course….

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