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The Russia-Georgia Conflict: What Happened and Future Implications for US Foreign Policy

September 12, 2008 // 9:00am10:15am

Wilson Center on the Hill's briefing on the Georgia-Russia conflict featured Charles King, Professor in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, and Michael Dobbs, Reporter and Former Moscow Bureau Chief for The Washington Post. The panel was moderated by William Pomeranz, Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which co-sponsored the event. The discussion focused on the history of conflict and ethnic tensions in the region, the underlying conditions which precipitated the Russia-Georgia conflict, and the overall implications for U.S. interests in this part of the world.

The History of a Diverse Region

King opened the program with an explanation of the diversity and history of the Caucasus Region, which is about the size of Texas. The region is geographically divided into the North, which is dominated by the Russian Federation, and the South, which includes Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Of these, Georgia declared its independence in 1991, but has itself remained politically and ethnically divided. This has led to further internal rebellions, starting with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian wars of liberation in 1992 that prompted a forceful Georgian backlash. Although these wars of liberation did not result in the complete break-off of Abkhazian and South Ossetia, from this time forward the two regions had their own de facto governments with unique education and currency systems.

Dobbs further explained the tension in the region and Russian involvement. Before its independence, Georgian revolutionary movements were put down brutally by Russian forces. This led to the popular leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in early 1991 who was elected with 86 percent of the vote. Although now independent, Georgia was itself a multinational state with ethnic minorities making up 30 percent of the population. This led to significant concerns of political domination and periodic uprisings by the minority populations. South Ossetia declared its own independence in late 1991, starting a small civil war in which Russia intervened to oppose Georgia. Dobbs emphasized that the movement of South Ossetia would not have been viable without this key Russian support. When Gamsakhurdia was eventually forced to resign, former Soviet leader Eduard Shevardnadze became president, brought "to power on a wave of change in public opinion," said King. Shevardnadze was seen as a 'savior,' following from his strong administrative experience as a Communist Party leader. Further, his relationship with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker was seen by many as critical to maintaining United States-Soviet Union relations during the Cold War.

King explained that Shevardnadze lost power in the 2003 elections as corruption increased, despite efforts to root it out; he was seen as out of touch with the population. Mikheil Saakashvili was elected President in 2004 with over 90 percent of the vote, and was again seen as Georgia's 'savior.' He also had the reputation of being a reformist and a friend of the United States. King stressed that many changes came from his leadership: the Georgian and E.U. flags flew together, Georgia took a pro-Europe and pro-U.S. stance, and, most importantly, Georgia would seek the reintegration of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, without which Saakashvili believed the country could not progress.

The Events of August 2008

Dobbs described Saakashvili's attempts to reintegrate South Ossetia and Abkhazia with reference to the model of the inclusion of the third breakaway region of Ajaria – which differs from the other two, as it does not share a border with Russia. Saakashvili claimed that he ordered an artillery barrage on Russian troops in South Ossetia for a training exercise only after Russian troops had moved through the Roki tunnel that links North and South Ossetia. According to Dobbs, the "United States government does not accept that order of events" and it is "difficult to produce evidence for this [chronology]". The more widely accepted view is that Saakashvili ordered the attacks and Russia then moved into Georgia between the seventh and eighth of August.

King explained that Russia's overreaction to these events was politically convenient and favorable for Russia's power in the region. He noted that Russia is one of the few countries that had recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. King further noted that both regions had de facto governments for some time. Over 80 percent of Russians supported Russia's intervention in Georgia, which they equate to NATO's support of the independence of Kosovo. Many Russians believe that Georgia is too friendly with the U.S., especially as Georgian leader Saakashvili pursues NATO membership and has been the third largest troop contributor to Iraq.

American Policy Response

Dobbs emphasized that Russia had essentially called the United States' bluff through its aggressive response against Georgia. He questioned whether the United States is really prepared to defend the country in the event of a Russian attack. He referred to the issue of NATO membership, explaining that an attack on one ally obligates all members to respond, but added that Georgia was not in NATO at the time of Russia's attack. King explained that there are clashing views on NATO, which, for older members, has become a "post modern democracy club," while future members see it as a security guarantee. He added that the United States has not done a good job of understanding the Russian perspective on NATO, leading to a deep divide over how the countries view the alliance.

Dobbs expressed his view that the best way for the U.S. to respond to the conflict is through soft power. He said that the independence of South Ossetia could cause a blowback of negative consequences in Russia in the form of economic downturn or additional independence movements within its own border. Such implications would be more effective than U.S. direct involvement, which is limited in the region.

The question and answer discussion at the end of the program explored the possible future policies of the U.S., especially in dealing with Saakashvili, Russia, and NATO membership. One participant asked whether the U.S. will attempt to overturn Saakashvili, to which Dobbs and King responded that it is uncertain whether or not he can politically survive this turn of events. They stressed the difficulty of assessing the situation due to the fact that there are no independent broadcast media representatives in Georgia presently. Another asked how the conflict will impact future U.S. policy, to which Dobbs responded that it will now be more difficult to pull either Georgia or Ukraine into NATO. He also noted that the U.S. response will also depend on the result of the 2008 U.S. election. On a question of how Russia will be punished for its intervention, King said that "I don't actually see a huge foreign policy response." While both governments have portrayed themselves as the winner, in King's view Russia has clearly come out on top.

Drafted by Timothy Valley, STAGE Program
Kent Hughes, Director, STAGE Program

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