Russia’s first ‘Western-style’ war

Far from the Russian Bear reasserting its Great Power, its foreign policy, like Britain and America’s, is uncertain and erratic.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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There is a great deal of Western hypocrisy over Russia’s ham-fisted military intervention in Georgia and its recognition of the independence of the two breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

These two republics declared their independence from Georgia in the early 1990s when, with Russian intervention, the Georgian government’s attempt to assert full sovereignty over the regions was defeated. While Russia’s military intervention to defeat the most recent Georgian attempt to retain control over South Ossetia was unsurprising, what has shocked Western observers is Russia’s decision to formally recognise the breakaway regions’ independence de jure rather than merely de facto.

The act of recognition has been understood by most Western commentators as a direct threat to Georgia’s territorial integrity and an assertion of Russia’s Great Power right to redraw the boundaries of the Caucasus, opening up the possibility of conflicts across the region, where there are many Russian separatist enclaves. Unilateral recognition of the republics appears to reopen the Cold War divide and express a Russian desire to reassert its lost authority over neighbouring states, which are coming increasingly under American influence with the expansion of the NATO alliance. Russia’s apparently brazen denial of the destabilising consequences of this act is seen as further evidence of a new confidence and willingness to confront a divided West.

This framework of explanation would have made sense if these events were happening during the Cold War. Yet something doesn’t ring true today. Russia’s act of aggression and clear breach of international protocols appears to have been undertaken in an off-hand and ill-considered, non-strategic way. On the ground, Russian troops going beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia were unsure whether they were defending the Russian-dominated republics or waging war on the Georgian government, their lack of strategic purpose strikingly reminiscent of NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russian recognition of the independence of the republics, unexpected in the West as well as in the region itself, will inevitably increase tensions with the Georgian government, and can only be understood as a largely unintended consequence of the intervention.

While American and British politicians and most commentators have jumped at the chance to frame Russia’s actions within traditional Cold War strategic frameworks, it is rare to read any analysis which places the Russian decision to recognise the republics in today’s more contingent and ad hoc political context. The closest is probably that of Stefan Meister at the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP), who argues that it was the West’s recognition of Kosovo which pushed Russia to take a hard line with Georgia and, in the process, demonstrate to its public that it was still a major power in world affairs. Meister argues: ‘The process has its own dynamic. Medvedev had no choice but to recognise the breakaway republics.’ (1)

Meister is right to understand Russia’s Georgian adventure as driven by its own self-image rather than any new externally aggressive strategic rethinking on the part of the Russian government. He is also right to argue that the process of intervention has its own dynamic and that the recognitions flowed from this. But the act of recognition was not merely grandstanding rhetoric and an act of self-aggrandisement, of the same order as sending the troops into Georgia proper. In fact, it is the act of recognition itself which most clearly indicates that Russia’s actions in Georgia today are similar to the ad hoc Western military activism of recent years, where strategic ends appear to come secondary to the attempt to generate a sense of domestic purpose and meaning.

Recognition was not an inevitable consequence of Russia sending troops to defend the status of the breakaway republics. In the early 1990s, and subsequently, Russia sent troops into Georgia while steadfastly refusing the breakaway republics’ demands that it should formally recognise their independence. The difference today is that Russia seems to have made the transition to ‘Western-style’ foreign policy-making, where the projection of power abroad is less about narrow strategic interests, making foreign intervention a much more self-conscious, introspective and problematic activity.

Despite the rhetoric of the reassertion of Russian authority, the act of recognition highlights the uncertainties driving Russian foreign policy. Recognition is a defensive statement that Russia was not acting purely under the traditional concerns of state interest or Great Power hegemony. Precisely because of the threatening nature of the Russian actions – this was Russia’s first post-Soviet military intervention into a foreign country – the act of recognition was a way of stepping back, of distancing, and declaring that Georgia is an exception. Further, the recognition of independence was an attempt to distance Russia, in the sense of denying Russian territorial aspirations. According to Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO: ‘The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states is a refusal from annexation.’ (2)

Recognition should be understood as a sign of uncertainty, just as Russian allegations of Georgian genocide and ethnic cleansing stand as a justification which sets up Georgia as an exception rather than a model to be emulated. Far from being an assertion of Russian authority, Medvedev argues that Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, forced Russia’s hand by launching the August offensive, asserting that: ‘Saakashvili chose genocide to fulfil his political plans.’ (3)

The official rhetoric coming from Moscow is essentially defensive, justifying recognition on humanitarian grounds, on behalf of the interests of the republics themselves. According to Medvedev, the humanitarian exception meant that recognition was necessary as the ‘only way to save the lives of people’.

Recognition highlights that Georgia is Russia’s first ‘Western-style’ war, where the strategic interests are unclear, and there is a contradictory desire to demonstrate authority while at the same time consciously distancing authority from the consequences of destabilising actions – which inevitably results in further tensions and unintended consequences. If the language in which these contradictions are expressed strikes us as artificial, that is because we have seen similar contradictory framings of intervention by Western policymakers in recent years.

As we have seen in Western interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere, external intervention has lacked clear strategic ends, and it has sought to rationalise itself in the self-understanding of ‘exceptional circumstances’ and by distancing itself from political responsibility as the situation becomes more unstable. In understanding the pressures leading Russia to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia, we can begin to grasp how intervention today takes on a destabilising dynamic, independently of the intentions or interests of the actors involved.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His most recent book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (Pluto, 2006) (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) Analysis: Georgia Need Not Become Cold War Catalyst, Deutsche Welle, 27 August 2008

(2) Russia recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia to save people’s lives, Pravda, 26 August 2008

(3) Russia recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia to save people’s lives, Pravda, 26 August 2008

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Topics Politics


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