Russia and Georgia: Unfinished business?

A year ago last August Russia and Georgia went to war over tiny South Ossetia. Is another war a serious possibility?


A year ago last August Russia and Georgia went to war over tiny South Ossetia. Half way through another summer of sabre-rattling in the Caucasus, is another war of ‘unfinished business’ a serious possibility? 

Georgia has asked the US to help it re-arm, Putin told Sarkozy he would like to hang Saakashvili ‘by the balls’. But the Caucasian weather (heavy rain in the autumn followed by snow) means that war is probably only technically possible until the end of September. Significantly, the EU enquiry into the causes of the 2008 war, chaired by Heidi Tagliavini, the former UN Special Representative to Georgia, has delayed its report until September at least, to avoid inflaming passions on the anniversary of the conflict. Both sides want to win the ‘information war’, and will hopefully at least wait to bear arms until the report comes out.  

Trip-wires to conflict

But there are plenty of other trip-wires. First, one reason that Russia did not march on to Tbilisi in August 2008 was that it calculated Saakashvili was going to fall. But everything about Saakashvilli’s current strategy – not confronting opposition protests that blocked the centre of Tbilisi from April to July (Saakashvili introduced a state of emergency during similar protests in 2007), and rushing through a package on ‘deepening democracy’ to coincide with the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden – indicates that Saakashvili is determined to see out his term, till 2013. Can Russia wait that long to be rid of him?

A second reason why the Russian advance was stopped in 2008 was that supply lines were over-stretched. Russia was using South Ossetian auxiliaries, and risked an undisciplined sack in Tbilisi. But over the last year, Russia has been busy building military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and even a naval base at Ochamchira. Russia may also be tempted to establish a land link to its 5,000 troops in Armenia, which currently can only be supplied by air.

The Georgian armed forces, on the other hand, are a broken instrument. While their fighting potential was not completely destroyed in 2008, Russia did succeed in severely degrading their capacity. Moreover, the army might not be willing to fight for Saakashvili after he has scapegoated them several times, including blaming middle-ranking officers for the mini-mutiny in May 2009. Military weakness is a double-edged sword. It makes Russian victory in a second war more likely, but it would also force Tbilisi to appeal for outside intervention as soon as any conflict started, if not before, as it has little capacity to resist on its own. And if Russia does attack, it makes it harder to stage the idea of a Georgian ‘provocation’ if Georgia doesn’t have the strength to attack.

The changed international environment since 2008 also cuts both ways. The US gave out some mixed signals in 2008, but Obama allegedly gave clearer warnings to Russia in private during the Moscow summit in July. Like Sarkozy in 2008, the current Swedish Presidency of the EU could be expected to be relatively resolute. It might therefore be more in Russia’s interests to wait for the Spanish and Belgian presidencies in 2010 before reigniting any conflict with Georgia.

The departure of most international observers is a worrying sign. The OSCE is to dissolve its sixteen year Georgian mission on 31 December after Russia vetoed its prolongation. UNOMIG, the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia, has been forced out of Abkhazia. This leaves only the European Union Monitoring Mission, or EUMM.

The EU’s role in Georgia this summer

So, as in August 2008, when Sarkozy helped broker the original cease-fire, the EU holds the key to Georgia’s future. Biden’s visit helped reassure Tbilisi that the US’s ‘Russia reset’ policy will not be at the expense of Georgia (or Ukraine); but it is difficult for America to do more without provoking Russia.

The EU has the boots on the ground, and these need to stay for the long-term. The EU should be aiming for a ‘Cyprus strategy’ for Georgia, stabilising the majority of Georgian territory over the long haul and preventing over-spill of problems from the north (just as southern Cyprus was stabilised after the Turkish invasion of the north in 1974), while at the same time prompting Tbilisi to end its non-productive policy of non-contact with official Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The EU has considerable leverage, as its post-conflict rehabilitation fund is underpinning the Georgian economy and isolating it from the worst effects of the global economic crisis – at least until 2010. But the EU has yet to find a way to effectively use this leverage.

In Cyprus, the north in time came to look with an envious hope at the increasingly stable and prosperous south. The same hope is the best strategy for Georgia today.


Andrew Wilson co-authored ECFR’s recent report, The limits of enlargement-lite: European and Russian power in the troubled neighbourhood.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.