April 18, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yaroslav Butakov


Is NATO ready to wage a war for Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

The activity of Mikhail Saakashvili's regime, focused on "return of original Georgian lands" of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, is becoming more and more intense. Almost every day, news wires report about provocative shootings launched by the Georgian military against Abkhazian military posts. In addition, Tbilisi established a puppet "alternative government" of Southern Ossetia – though its base of support does not exceed that of Estonian Communist Party in 1940.

These efforts obviously reflect Tbilisi's euphoria over the US Congress' approval of Georgia's entry in NATO. The Congress' politically correct expression of sympathy is probably interpreted by Mr. Saakashvili as an indulgence for any kind of treatment of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. However, this interpretation of Saakashvili's team is a serious misjudgment.

Undoubtedly, the territory of Georgia is of strategic importance for NATO and Washington's interests in the region. Having a common border with Russia's Chechen Republic, Georgia also comprises an element of the Eurasian transport corridor, a key link in a number of projects of Russia-circumventing pipeline routes, as well as a potential military stronghold for operations against Iran. At the same time, Georgia is one of the few post-Soviet countries where the idea of entry in NATO is unconditionally greeted both by the government and the parliament's majority.

Still, those benefits encounter a significant obstacle. In case of joining NATO, Georgia would become the only member of the alliance with incomplete control of its nominal territory. None of other NATO members have got problems like that. Will NATO agree to incorporate Georgia in this shape? Among other new members of the Alliance, an exception was made for Latvia, which hadn't yet signed its border agreement with Russia by the moment of entry. However, Riga later dropped it claims for the disputed district of Pytalovo/Abrene, in exchange for a promising involvement in the Russian-German gas transit network. In its turn, Tbilisi has rejected all the economically favorable proposals of partnership with Russia's energy corporations, thus instigating Moscow to accomplish a direct gas transit link with Turkey and Southern Europe, known as the Blue Stream.

It is noteworthy that Georgia's membership in NATO is to be approved not only by a single power but by the majority of the North Atlantic Alliance's nations. Meanwhile, Central Europe is already interpreting Washington's enthusiasm for NATO expansion as an intention to diminish the European role in the treaty organization.

NATO's official representatives have not yet formulated any conditions for Georgia's entry, associated with border problems. The most probable explanation is that Georgia is unable to fulfill these conditions. Its military potential, with regard of serious economic and social problems as well, is not sufficient for forcing the breakaway Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia to give up their unrecognized but real independence. Even in case Russia unilaterally pulls out for the joint peacekeeping authorities in both of these republics, and refrains from any other involvement, their population, which has politically expressed its reluctance to obey to Tbilisi, would not give in.

NATO's official silence is interpreted in Tbilisi in its own way – as a sign of approval. Moreover, NATO is viewed as a force which would help Tbilisi to solve both of its territorial problems. Insisting that Kosovo is inappropriate as a precedent for Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, the US Ambassador in the United Nations fuels up more illusions in Tbilisi. However, the sympathy to Mr.Saakashvili, a postgraduate of the Columbia University, is not a sufficient condition for Washington's involvement in a full-scale military operation in the breakaway republics.

With NATO as a whole, the situation is even more problematic. European countries are mostly reluctant to face a risk of a conflict with Russia for the sake of Georgia's (historically doubtful and politically troublesome) re-integration.

A number of Western authors have recently expressed a sober view on the subject of NATO's relations with Russia's closest neighbors.

Anatol Lieven, in his article for Financial Times, emphasizes that the theses of Vladimir Putin's speech at the Wehrkunde Conference in Munich are likely to determine Russia's foreign policy for the nearest years, which has to be understood. Therefore, as this author believes, the West should not directly confront Russia in case the debate does not concern vital interests.

Anatol Lieven is skeptical about the efforts to integrate Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, emphasizing that political pressure on this issue only instigates the anti-American sentiment in these countries. In addition, Georgia's membership in NATO would oblige the West to take responsibility for this country's complicated ethnic and political problems which exceed the issue of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia.

At the same time, Mikhail Saakashvili's personal patrons in the US establishment are energetically pushing the so-called "stage by stage" scenario of re-unification. At the first stage, the problem of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia would be elevated to the level of the "global community". Then, on the basis of a UNSC resolution, Russian peacekeepers would be replaced by an international force, and under its guise, Georgia starts overtaking power over the breakaway republics. A number of new UNSC resolutions would declare Georgia's integrity "an indispensable principle”; thus, the authorities of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia would be coerced to accept a reduced form of autonomy. In case of their resistance, the "decision of the global community" would hopefully justify a legitimate military operation. As Georgian forces are unable to accomplish the task, a NATO contingent (following the pattern of Yugoslavia) would be pulled in. Essentially, the scenario supposes that the two autonomies, in this case, would be completely eliminated by military force (like the Republic of Srpska Kraina in Croatia), while the “disobedient” majority of the population of the breakaway republics would escape to the territory of Russia and free their homes to "original" Georgians.

Curiously, the leadership of Georgia does not realize that this scenario will not work. It will stumble already at the first stage, as Russia will se its vote in the UNSC to veto any resolution, depriving Moscow of its preferable right for peacekeeping presence in the area.

An attempt to push the resolution through the mechanism of OSCE won't work either, as Russia would correctly object that the issue is beyond OSCE's latitude. The option of pushing the resolution through the NATO Council is quite improbable, as NATO would not wage a war against Russia for the sake of a territorial gift to Mr. Saakashvili.

A supposed NATO operation of that kind would be a war against Russia, and nothing else – as even in case the Russian troops are formally pulled out, regular forces will be replaced by volunteers with a good experience of military service.

One more circumstance, preventing NATO from official support of Georgia's militant plans, is the recognition of the fact that in case of a Georgian (or pro-Georgian) occupation of the breakaway republics, their territory will become a permanent battleground of asymmetric warfare, the guerilla forces enjoying logistical and cadre support from adjacent facilities on the territory of Russia. This perspective would eventually affect NATO's own reputation, as its forces would fail to keep a "democratic" image under the described conditions, while casualties among the peacekeepers would arouse public and political protests inside the involved nations. Eventually, after months or years of asymmetric warfare, Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia will gain independence.

Inside or outside NATO, Saakashvili's Georgia is unable to establish its power over Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia without approval from its population. This approval is not available, and is not going to be available in visible future.

What is the best option to avoid a devastating warfare in the region? The peoples of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia have clearly expressed their will in public referendums, conducted in both breakaway republics. These peoples regard themselves as a part of the Russian nation. Authorizing this legally expressed will for integration, Moscow would diminish the potential undesirable effects of Georgia's entry in NATO.

In order to substantiate this decision, Russia does not need to refer to the precedent of Kosovo. A more convincing parallel could be found in the history of the American continent: take Texas, which once declared its independence from Mexico, to be integrated into the United States – in accordance exceptionally with the will of its population.

The unification of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia with Russia is likely to be described in Western press as a proof or Russia's imperial expansion. Still, pragmatic Western politicians – as well as the pragmatic faction of Georgia's establishment, focused on resolution of the country's economic problems – would admit that this option is favorable not for Moscow alone, but for the region as a whole.

For the Russian side, it is not very important whether the global community recognizes the new borders soon, or decades later. Though the USSR's overtake of the Baltic states was disapproved by the West, it did not represent a serious obstacle for the Soviet Union's relations with the United States and Western Europe. The integration of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, as a definitely much more legitimate procedure, would also suggest a great relief for the taxpayers of NATO countries, and even many of their leaders, since they would finally get rid of the headache of responsibility for the situation in this troublesome region.

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