Russia shuts out the international community


The Russian leadership’s actions have made it clear that it wants no international presence in Georgia’s occupied regions. That begs the question why this is the case, says Svante Cornell. Read his article from Daily Tepegraph.

This Monday, Russia vetoed the extension of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia. The move served to kill the last remaining international organization with a presence in Georgia’s conflict zones, which Moscow invaded and occupied last August. This will enable Russia to continue to stage provocations against its small neighbor with impunity. Moscow clearly feels it did not finish what it started last August; only continued Western resolve can deter it from trying to do so.

Last August, Russia invaded Georgia and effectively annexed two of its provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This aggression sought not only to dismember Georgia and halt its NATO accession prospects, but to undermine Western interests in Europe and Eurasia. The August war generated fear and horror across much of Europe, and pledges of aid and support to Georgia were swift to follow. But soon after the guns fell silent in mid-August, Georgia was put on the backburner. The economic crisis understandably drained attention; the incoming Obama administration announced its “reset” diplomacy with Russia, and most European states normalized ties with Moscow.

All that might have made sense if the war had been an accident or a one-off event. But it was nothing of the sort. Many scholars have now shown Russia’s invasion of Georgia had been long in the planning, premeditated and intended to deal a mortal blow to what Moscow saw as western encroachment in its backyard. Whatever mistakes the Georgian government may have made in being lured into war, there is little doubt Moscow provoked the conflict to bully its neighbors into submission.

European and American policy-makers should view Moscow’s actions since the war with caution and apprehension. Simply put, Moscow has not finished its job. The Kremlin is in blatant violation of the cease-fire terms to which it agreed. It has reneged on its pledge to reduce conflict-zone troop numbers to pre-war levels, and is constructing permanent military bases in the occupied territories. Moscow also spent millions in a public-relations campaign to convince the world that Georgia, not Russia, started the war—in spite of plentiful evidence to the contrary, with the most damning reporting coming from Russia’s own media.

Nothing underscores the illegitimacy of Moscow’s actions more than its efforts to push international organizations out of the conflict zones, and this is the context of the recent UN vote. Russia already used its veto to have the OSCE mission in Georgia, which worked in South Ossetia, closed down. It refuses to allow the unarmed EU Monitoring Mission, launched after the war, access to either Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The only international organization that still actively monitored security inside the occupied territories was the UN, which operated an observer mission in Abkhazia for 16 years.

As the Mission’s mandate came up for renewal, Moscow clearly negotiated in bad faith. It was pushing changes to the mandate that it knew Western leaders could not accept, enabling it to terminate the UN presence on the ground. Moscow was pushing to change the name of the UN mission, seeking to delete all references to Abkhazia being legally part of Georgia—something all UN members save Russia and Nicaragua recognize. In diplomacy, words matter. If Russia had had its will, that would effectively have helped Moscow undermine the stated western policy of non-recognition of its annexation of Abkhazia.

In effect, the UN Secretary-General had already caved. In Ban Ki-Moon’s May 18 report on Abkhazia, all references to Georgia were omitted from the title, and the report’s language effectively legitimized the self-proclaimed governments of the two occupied territories. The report even failed to mention Russia’s ethnic cleansing of Georgians in the separatist regions. Moscow also used the UN as a platform to bargain with the West—suggesting it might be more helpful on issues like North Korea and Iran if the West would drop the Georgia issue.

But ultimately, Russia was not interested in compromise. Rather, it was probably bargaining on a split in the Western alliance, hoping that friendly European powers like France or Germany (or even Turkey) would cave in, leaving the UK and US left to uphold Georgia’s sovereignty. But to their credit, the Western powers stood up for principle against Moscow’s manipulations. That left Moscow with no choice but to use its veto to kill the UN mission.

The Russian leadership’s actions have made it clear that it wants no international presence in Georgia’s occupied regions. That begs the question why this is the case, after Moscow invaded those regions, and effectively annexed them. Moscow may have recognized them as independent states, but effectively treats them as it its own provinces, appointing and removing government ministers at will.

The point is that Moscow’s moves prevent the international community from monitoring Russia’s military build-up and troop movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Recall that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in August made clear to French President Sarkozy and others that he aimed to oust Georgia’s democratically elected government, and even to “hang” Georgia’s president “by the balls”. There is no indication Russia’s goals have changed, only uncertainty as to what instruments Moscow may use to achieve its objectives.

With the UN now out of the picture, only firm Western diplomacy can dissuade such scheming. Indeed, if President Obama’s reset diplomacy is to have any chance of success, it is imperative that his administration and America’s allies avoid committing the mistake that the West collectively made last year – ignoring Russia’s belligerence towards Georgia.

Obama travels to Moscow in July to meet Russian President Medvedev. When he does, he must make clear that Russia’s behavior toward Georgia will have an impact on US-Russian relations, and that Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected. Asserting these red lines is essential to the new Obama administration’s support for the independence and democracy of Eurasian nations—even if they are small and want to escape Russia’s heavy-handed domination.

Svante Cornell is Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, and Director of the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy. He is co-editor of the recently released The Guns of August 2009: Russia’s War in Georgia, published by M.E. Sharpe.

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