Lessons of the Caucasus Conflict

Russian soldiers ride an A.P.C. (armored personnel carrier), August 22, near Igoeti, on the road from Tbilisi to Gori, Georgia. (Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

What Did the U.S. Really Know About Georgia's Intentions?

Six days of war in the Caucasus (a war that started without a declaration and ended without a peace treaty) has transformed the geopolitical map of Europe and maybe the world. The implications of the war transcend well beyond the region of the Caucasus. Many questions still need answers. Was it possible for President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia to launch an attack into South Ossetia without the knowledge of the United States?

This is highly unlikely. According to independent sources in Georgia, there are American military advisers, political trainers, and civil contractors—more than 1,000 people—all well placed and connected to Georgian political decision makers. In the last five years, the United States has invested more than $180 million in Georgian military compatibility with NATO standards and more the 100 top-level officers from the Georgian army and security services have received training in the United States.

This high level of involvement in the Georgian political landscape makes it improbable that the United States did not know that Georgia's military had concentrated troops and prepared a massive attack against South Ossetia.

It is clear that the Russian reaction surprised the United States. It is possible that many in Washington had felt that Russia would have the same reaction as in the Kosovo crises: inflammatory remarks, strong language, and political pressure but no military response. In this case, this was a severe miscalculation.

Why Did Russia Intervene Militarily?

For Russia, there was no option but a strong military reaction. If South Ossetia had fallen to Georgian troops, the unfolding of the events would have being very clear: Georgia's next move would be to send troops to Abkhazia (international observers in the region had reported an important Georgian military buildup for this next phase of the operations).

The fall of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have undermined the entire Russian geopolitical plan in the Caucasus.

In the next stage, the pro-American power in Baku, Azerbaijan, would send troops in a similar operation against Armenia and Russian-backed separatists in Naghorno Karabah. After such a blow the pro-Russian government in Yerevan, Armenia, already under strong pressure, would reorient his policy toward Russia. The Caucasus would then be lost for a long period to Russian influence. This scenario could not be tolerated by Moscow and will not be tolerated in the future either.

What Are Russia's Next Options?

Russia has already sketched the next steps here: internationalization of the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, organizing local referendum to decide for independence and to recognize the independence after the Kosovo model. Serghei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has already explained that Russia recognizes only the sovereignty of Georgia not its territorial integrity—a very clear message that it supports South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's bids for independence.

If Russia's position is very clear, the conflict in Georgia has also drawn further diplomatic lines in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Even as the war raged in Georgia, the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine took a strong position condemning Russian military reactions and going to Tbilisi to offer moral and political support to Saakashvili. So in the former sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, we see the building of a new entente to keep Russia out of the region. Also, Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan supported Russian actions and condemned Georgia as provocative, a signal that they will remain allied with Russia. The closing of the confrontation with Georgia marks the opening of a new chapter in the fight for predominance in Eastern Europe: Ukraine.

Ukraine: The Second Chapter of the Drama?

Like Georgia, Ukraine is a very vulnerable ally of the United States. Ukraine has an important Russian minority (almost 20 percent of the population) and a massive pro-Russian alliance of political parties. The sovereignty over Crimea is disputed and the possibility of a civil war is very high in Ukraine offering to Russia the possibility to use this liability for its involvement in the region. The Georgian drama will be just a prelude to a Ukraine one if the leadership in Kiev is not able to reach a compromise with Russia over Ukraine's bid to join NATO.

What Are the Conclusions of the Six-Day War in the Caucasus?

Russia is ready to use not only political pressure but also military means to protect what it calls an integral part of its sphere of protection: the Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus, and Central Asia. Any further interference in this region will mean the restart of the cold war—an eventuality that I hope no one wants.

Also, Russia has adopted a new diplomatic doctrine that must be seriously taken in account: the right for intervention in any former Soviet area if it is required to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens (as announced by President Dmitry Medvedev). This concept will further be used to pressure Ukraine.

The diplomatic pressure being applied by the United States is clearly directed at dissuading Russia from any further intervention in Ukraine and any further use of this Russian citizen protection doctrine. The effect of this pressure on Russia remains to be seen.

The Georgian crisis has dramatically changed the map of Eastern Europe and caused Russian-American relations to descend to a level not seen in the last 20 years.