Frozen Conflicts Aren’t: Conflict Resolution Lessons for Ukraine from the Georgian Experience with Russia
The conflict between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia provide a number of valuable and relevant lessons for international organizations and the international community when involved in conflict resolution activities. These lessons are certainly applicable to the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict and a number of unfortunate parallels are already evident. Based on the lessons learned of Russia’s decades long conflict with Georgia, there is little reason for optimism that the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine will be settled through international negotiation any time soon and plenty of reasons why it will continue to be a source of instability in the region for years to come. .
The Georgian Wars of the 1990s
The wars fought in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 1991 and 1992 were initially focused on ethnic identity, power and political representation in the turbulent aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At stake was the status and control of what had formerly been “autonomous” regions within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The newly independent Georgian state tried to resolve this issue with force, but was unsuccessful due to a lack of a capable military force under national control and Russian military and political support for the Abkhaz and Ossetia separatists. Russian defeat of the Georgians allowed them to impose political and security conditions on the weak and fragile Georgian state. These included Tbilisi joining the CIS, the granting of basing rights for Russian forces within Georgia and the acceptance of Russian forces, previously combatants in the conflict, as “peacekeepers” within the conflict zones.
The international community, particularly NATO and the European Union, were both heavily engaged in the process of integrating the newly- free nations of the former Warsaw Pact into Europe, as well as dealing with the contentious breakup of the Yugoslavia. Neither had any interest in Georgia and the messy internal wars in the Caucasus. There was little knowledge or experience of Georgia and the Caucasus within Western circles - the region had been a closed and militarized backwater of the Soviet Union. Russia had much more interest and the ability to intervene in neighboring Georgia. The West gave it a free hand, allowing it to dominate the post- conflict situation on the ground. The Western contribution was an OSCE Observer Mission in South Ossetia with a limited mandate to observe and report compliance with the ceasefire and a UN Observer Mission (UNOMIG) with a similar, observe and report Chapter VI mandate. In both cases the unarmed observers were dependent on the Russian Peacekeepers for access and their personal safety in the dangerous conflict zones.
An Acceptable Status Quo?
In the 15 years following the conflicts, the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia became two of the so-called “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union. Russian forces continued to dominate the security situation and the separatist leaders, dependent on Russia, had little opportunity or incentive to negotiate or change the status quo. The requirement for consensus decision-making within the OSCE and Russia’s veto in the Security Council allowed Moscow to prevent a robust international conflict resolution role. Russian membership within the OSCE and UNOMIG observer forces and their dependence on the Russian military for safety and security in the conflict zones limited the utility and credibility of the international missions. Their mere continuation of presence through annual renewals of the mandates became the major focus of the OSCE and UN efforts.
NATO during this period was focused on extending its security umbrella into Eastern Europe and dealing with conflict in the Balkans. Despite Georgian aspirations to NATO, there was broad disagreement within the alliance regarding the readiness of Georgia for accession and the wisdom of taking what would be seen as a provocative step by Moscow. This led to the ambiguous March 2008 Bucharest statement which “welcomed Georgia’s aspirations” but did not offer the desired Membership Action Plan. Moscow’s heated reaction to the Bucharest Summit made it clear that it did indeed see future NATO expansion into the Caucasus and former Soviet Union as a threat. Moscow was presented with a window of opportunity for action before Georgia would be accepted into NATO, with the membership benefit of its Article 5 collective self-defense provision.
The EU played a modest role during this period. The Union was focused on expansion within Europe and lacked a robust external relations dimension. The Caucasus was far away and not particularly important - certainly not as important as the EU relationship with Russia. The EU was major aid donor; primarily for Georgian IDP relief and rehabilitation, largely administered through international NGOs, and for institutional reform with the Georgian Government.
Impotence and Apathy of the International Community
By 2008 there was no international actor with the interest or leverage to bring about a change to the status quo. Russian military forces dominated the conflicts zones and blocked any international political efforts. The UN and OSCE had no influence and little credibility. NATO and EU had little interest in the area. The Russian-backed Abkhaz and South Ossetian leadership had no incentive to negotiate, the status quo was acceptable to them. The return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and restoration of Georgian territorial integrity increasingly became the focus of Georgian domestic and international efforts. From Tbilisi’s perspective, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were being absorbed into the Russia state (inhabitants were provided Russian passports, used Russian currency and voted in Russian elections) while the international community did nothing to halt or even condemn Russian actions or halt the creeping annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The world’s international organizations played a similar limited role following the short August 2008 Georgian-Russian War. The unarmed OSCE and UN Observers were ignored by the Russians and swept aside by the Russian attacks into Georgia from Abkhaz and Ossetian. territory. Consensus requirements and the potential Russian Security Council veto muted any objective reporting or analysis by those organizations. Following the war, Moscow blocked the extension of the OSCE mandate in South Ossetia on 22 December 2008. Russian used its Security Council veto to end the UNOMIG Mission in Abkhazia on 15 June 2009. The UN and OSCE, initially irrelevant, quickly were absent from the conflict zone. Georgia was not a NATO member and NATO was under no obligation to assist Tbilisi. From the alliance’s perspective, the difficult debate within NATO regarding the nature of the threat presented by a newly assertive Russia, and what NATO’s response should be, were fortunately avoided. The European Union, by default, became the only International Institution that had a desire and some ability to play a role.
Fortunately for the Georgians, the rotational head of the EU Presidency in August 2008 was France’s Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy had international standing, the will and an experienced and well-resourced French foreign policy staff necessary to bring about a ceasefire. It was his ambition and staff which drove the EU into playing a role. It is difficult to imagine a similar outcome if the EU President at the time would have been from smaller EU State or been an individual unable or unwilling to engage so resolutely in the international arena. Sarkozy succeeded in negotiating an initial six point ceasefire between Moscow and Tbilisi on 12 August. The six points were: an end to hostilities, renouncing the future use of force, Georgian military return to bases, Russian return to pre-war positions and force levels, free access for humanitarian aid, and international talks to determine the future status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It was not until 8 September that the 12 August ceasefire was implemented, a period the Russians and their proxies used to complete their destruction of Georgian military infrastructure, ethnically cleanse Georgians from Ossetia and expand their control beyond the prewar borders of Ossetia. The EU responded with an unarmed observer force (EUMM), whose mandate it was to observe compliance with the ceasefire negotiated by Sarkozy. Prior to the EUMM arrival, Russia recognized the independence of Ossetia (population 60,000) and Abkhazia (population 200,000) on 26 August.
Post- Ceasefire Russian Actions as the World Watches
Upon arrival in Georgia, the EUMM was prohibited by the Russians from movement into the Ossetian or Abkhaz portion of the conflict zone. The delivery of international humanitarian aid in Abkhazia and Ossetia was blocked. Abkhazia and Ossetia quickly signed bilateral agreements with Moscow allowing the basing of an expanded Russian military forces in both Abkhazia and Ossetia. The Russian Federal Border Service assumed control of the Abkhaz and Ossetian borders. Within a matter of weeks the major provisions of the ceasefire were broken by Russia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were de facto absorbed into the Russian federation, a process which has continued with the recent signing of bilateral treaties on alliance and integration. Consequences for Moscow have been minimal and are generally limited to rhetoric and diplomatic resolutions by NATO, the EU and the UN General Assembly. Russia paid no price for the land grab. No substantial sanctions were envisioned or debated, business with Russia quickly got back to normal. There is no meaningful discussion internationally today about the status of Abkhazia and Ossetia, the world has moved on to other more pressing concerns.
The Ominous Parallels with Ukraine.
The international community’s role in Georgia has a number of ominous parallels for any future international conflict resolution role in Ukraine. Although it denies it, Russia is once again a party to the conflict, both indirectly and directly, via its backing of the separatists and the direct role of its combat forces. Russia’s claim “not to be a party to the conflict” goes unchallenged by the international community. The Russian veto in the UN Security Council will prevent any meaningful role for the UN. Consensus decision-making within the OSCE means that Moscow will be able to continue to block any significant action. Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, no doubt to the relief of many within the alliance. Despite the fact that the EU’s Association Partnership Agreement Talks were the proximate cause of the crisis, Ukraine isn’t a priority for the EU and the EU lacks adequate tools of influence with Moscow. The EU’s External Actions Service is embryonic and lacks status and has the unenviable task of trying to coordinate the actions of 28 sovereign states who have deeply divided and divergent positions towards Russia.
A number of applicable conclusions can be drawn from the Georgian-Russian case studies that have relevance to the current Ukrainian crisis.
- “Frozen conflicts” have their own dynamic. As time goes on, new facts are created on the ground, the side occupying the ground sees little incentive to change the status quo, while the side who lost the territory can perceive rash action as a viable policy… if for no reason other than to draw attention to the issue.
- While there is a need for a cooling off period immediately following hostilities, letting too much time go by before attempting reconciliation is dangerous too. People who previously lived side by side and had dialogue together lose this ability to know and understand “the other” as time separates them into opposing sides informed only by biased reporting.
- The mere presence of members of international organizations is not sufficient to resolve conflict. Maintaining the mere presence of the organization can become the focus of its activity, leading to a reluctance to report or publicize questionable or unproductive behavior by the parties involved. Violations unreported and unpunished encourage further illegal action. Being impartial is not the same thing as being neutral.
- For negotiations to be fruitful, all sides involved must believe they have incentives and disincentives to negotiate. The international community must be willing to employ disincentives if they are serious about resolution.
- The requirement for consensus in decision-making in the OSCE and EU and the Permanent Five’s ability to veto within the UNSC limit the utility of the UN, OSCE and EU in conflict resolution and management scenarios.
- Don’t underestimate the importance a dynamic, credible and trusted individual can have in driving and leading the process.