In June 2008 the Atlantic Council of the United States published a paper entitled Restoring Georgia’s Sovereignty in Abkhazia. The author proposed several solutions to the on-going conflict, specifically calling on Russia to become a force for peace rather than an obstructionist great power. Unfortunately the timing of the publication invalidated many of its suggestions as Russia and Georgia went to war two months later.
The author bears no criticism for making bold predictions since these are often necessary to focus international attention on forgotten problems. However, the Summer War showed something more disturbing than a forgetful diplomatic community. It showed how little Georgia matters in the Great Game of world politics. As a result, Abkhazia will likely never return to Georgian control. Russian troops garrison the region, oligarchs own increasing amounts of beachfront property in the Black Sea capital of Sokhumi, and an overwhelming majority of Abkhaz can claim citizenship in another country by virtue of their Russian passports. How then can Georgian sovereignty be restored?
Determining the future of Georgian territorial integrity first requires an explanation of the Summer War. It also demands radical changes in Georgian nationalism and international aid policies. In contrast, Russia need only accept responsibility for those under its control. None of the following suggestions will be easy or well-liked, but they are the only way for Georgia to solve the enduring problems of its territorial losses.
Georgia is a patchwork of ethnic groups that share a few commonalities: Orthodox Christianity, cuisine, and the Georgian language. The Abkhaz are one of several ethnicities with ties to groups in Southern Russia and Georgia; they are most closely related to Georgian-Mengrelians living near the border with Abkhazia. However, centuries of shifting imperial lines of control, punctuated by periods of independence, created competing claims of political legitimacy.
Nationalism in both countries increased in the early Soviet period, but political machinations over the next seventy years worsened rather than calmed relations. Fighting eventually broke out in the early 1990s leading to the expulsion of over 200,000 Georgians (mostly Mengrelians) from Abkhazia. Nearly 50,000 returned to the Gali border region after the ceasefire, but few ever returned to their homes in Abkhazia.
The Abkhaz never pursued offensive military strategies during the sixteen years of conflict resolution efforts with Georgia. Instead, they maintained defensive positions under the 1992 Sochi Agreement monitored by Russian peacekeepers. There had been small skirmishes around the border, but rarely more than the occasional flare-up. The Georgian capture of the Kodori Valley in northern Abkhazia in 2006 did not upset the status quo, nor did bombastic rhetoric from Tbilisi and the disruption of diplomatic and trade relations compel Russia to set aside its claimed neutrality.
However, once Georgian forces began killing Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia, Moscow seized the opportunity to punish the Georgian government and restore Russian dominance in the Caucasus.
The Summer War developed out of a series of skirmishes common to the region. South Ossetian paramilitary groups destroyed a Georgian police vehicle on August 1st, and Georgian snipers retaliated by killing several off-duty Ossetian police officers. Localized fighting continued until August 6th, when both sides significantly increased their military forces engaged in the battle. Despite the antagonists’ assertions that their enemies had aggressive intentions, it seems more likely that dramatically heightened threat perceptions caused the escalation: the separatists had grown increasingly worried by the Georgian President’s assertive nationalist rhetoric, while increased Russian security assurances to the Abkhaz and Ossetians compressed Georgian time frames for reclaiming the separatist regions.
Sometime between the late evening of August 7th and the early hours of the 8th Georgian troops entered the South Ossetian capital and the Russian army entered South Ossetia. Both sides claim they acted in response to the other’s aggression, but President Saakashvilli called for a ceasefire once it became clear that the Russians had fully committed to the battle. His actions could have halted the disastrous spiral towards full-scale war if Russia had maintained purely defensive intentions, but Moscow’s actions in the following months clearly showed this was not the case.
The Georgians argue that Russian aggression in 2007, specifically the downing of Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles and a helicopter attack on Georgian positions in the Kodori Valley, had taken relations in a decidedly negative direction. The tipping point came when Russia opened official relations with the separatists in April 2008, signaling a major shift from tacit approval to overt recognition. This may have been the logical response to the Georgian government changing the title of the Ministry of Conflict Resolution to the more aggressive sounding Ministry of Territorial Integration. However, the Georgian action can be explained as either playing to nationalist sentiment in the face of growing domestic opposition, or as fulfillment of a campaign promise to restore Georgia’s long-lost territory; neither reason contradicted the international agreements governing relations between the parties.
The Russian offensive into Georgia proper also calls into question Moscow’s claims that its actions were 1) peacekeeping, 2) UN-sanction Right to Protect against aggression, or 3) outside intervention in support of oppressed peoples, especially since they and the Abkhaz drove out the remaining Georgian civilians rather than protect them during the fighting.
In addition, the Georgians argue that Russian troop deployments were not defensive but rather a premeditated plan to alter the configuration of power in the region prior to fully recognizing Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. Moscow simply waited for an opportune time to release the full force of its military on the weaker Georgian army. The loss of several Russian peacekeepers did not warrant such a massive military response, but it served as a catalyst to change the larger strategic situation in the Caucasus.
The Russian version of events states that Abkhazia was fortified by sea and land forces through newly repaired roads and railways connecting it to Southern Russia because Russian military commanders believed that an attack into Abkhazia was imminent. Whether they received covert intelligence or had monitored the Georgian military buildup with growing concern, the signs showed a major change was about to take place.
Then, during late July Russian troops participated in a counter-terrorism exercise near the border and were ideally poised to defend their peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia if Georgian soldiers entered in force. Once that happened, Russia pursued a strategy of “peace coercion” to ensure the Georgian government would never again try to alter the strategic situation through military means.
This led to a full-scale invasion of northern Georgia, driving the Georgians out of their American-financed bases near Zugdidi (the closest town to the Abkhaz border), and maintaining security zones for several weeks to eliminate guerilla activity in the area.
Several months earlier I had spoken to members of the US intelligence community about the growing likelihood of war in the region, providing pictures taken behind the Abkhaz border. Their importance was not to show behind-the-scenes photos of Russian troop emplacements, rather to give examples of intelligence provided to the Georgian security service by my translator while I was there. The pictures showed run down facilities concentrated around the Gali border region, but no Russian troops afterward on the primary highway to the Abkhaz capital of Sokhumi. The occasional Abkhaz army minivan accounted for most of the military traffic.