Issue 6, November 2008
Were Russia’s military actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008 a sign that Putin and Medvedev are ready to take their renewed assertiveness to the next level? What were they trying to say? Was it a miscalculation or “strategic blunder,” as Fareed Zakaria and others have concluded? Was it a reasonable and isolated response to provocation by the Georgians and rooted in tensions going back over a decade? Or a cynical and opportunistic attempt to reassert control over a Western leaning former Soviet republic? Or was it something larger and more menacing toward the West as a whole? Analysts remain divided; yet as the dust settles, Cold War verbs are being dusted off. To contain or engage? To appease or oppose? To embrace or manage?
Roots of the Crisis
Russia and Georgia share a long and complicated history. The two were first joined in the early 19th Century when the mountainous area of Georgia was absorbed into an expanding Russian Empire. Over a century later, following the Russian Revolution, Georgia briefly gained its independence, only to be forcibly incorporated into the USSR three years later, in 1921. Georgia, though the smallest of the Soviet republics, was largely considered one of its gems, with a favorable climate, the thriving capital city of Tblisi, and a strategic location on the Black Sea.
Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia, which is about the size of South Carolina, again became an independent nation. Yet the country quickly found itself embroiled in a violent civil war dominated by conflict with separatist ethnic enclaves who opposed incorporation into the Georgian state. These included the restive areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, located on Georgia’s northern border with Russia and containing ethnic Russian and other non-Georgian ethnic groups. With Russian help, these northern provinces achieved de-facto secession from Georgia during the early 1990s, while Georgia’s leaders battled for control of the rest of the country with war lords and regional clans amidst near total economic collapse.
When Communist leader Eduard Shevardadze became President of the foundering Georgian republic in 1992, his authoritarian government brought tenuous peace. Yet his attempts to hold the country together and engineer an economic recovery were hampered by continuing ethnic tensions as well as rampant corruption. Shevarnadze was then toppled in the bloodless 2003 Rose Revolution; the next year, Georgians elected US-educated, reformist President Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili’s pro-Western orientation and democratic liberal reform agenda quickly set Georgia apart from the other former Soviet republics, and earned the struggling nation the support of the United States and Europe, as well as the enmity of Russia. By going on to actively pursue NATO membership for Georgia, Saakhasvili ran seriously afoul of what would become known as the Putin Doctrine – Russia’s policy of reasserting its influence over the states of the former Soviet neighborhood. Compounding this tension with Russia, Saakashvili also made Georgian reunification a priority and began a campaign to regain control of the breakaway northern regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia containing ethnic Russian populations.