With a gradual dwindling of hopes for a tangible Western response to Russian actions in Ukraine, it is time for Georgia to consider implications for its European future. It is crucial to act upon emerging threats early, rather than passively await Russia to back down under the Western pressure.
While the Western diplomatic rhetoric in response to Crimea remains bold and some sanctions have been applied to the limited number of Russian officials, two multi-billion dollar deals have been secured between Russian state-affiliated businesses and German and Italian companies on the very same day of Crimea’s formal annexation. Such transactions could not have taken place if the West intended to fully isolate Russia. In times of lasting economic crisis in Europe, business-oriented European interest groups with links to Russia still hold sway in the capitals. And with some influential voices from America’s epistemic community pointing to need of working with Russia on a broad range of issues from Syria to Iran, Afghanistan and for countering China, many indicators suggest that the question of Ukraine can eventually be "localized" as just another point of disagreement between the West and Russia, while business will more or less continue as usual. Russian leaders know this.
Further escalation of the crisis in Ukraine might dash these calculations. But it does not seem likely that Crimea will become next Yugoslavia, as some observers suggest. The Kremlin has an experience in maintaining a surface stability in such an explosive places as Chechnya. Moscow may consider potential gains from further destabilization, and act if counteractions from Kyiv give minimum pretext for labeling them as “provocative”. The prudence that Kiev has shown so far, indicates, however,that this danger is well understood by the government of Ukraine.The further escalation of the crisis is then possible only by coincidence of contingent factors and is not very likely.
So what are the implications of the events in Ukraine for Georgia? And how should we act if Russia is as committed as it has shown in Ukraine not to let Georgia closer to the EU and NATO? In his recent televised interview, former Prime Minister Ivanishvili opined that the success of Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration depends on the strength of the Western resources allocated for countering Russia’s efforts to jeopardize it.
While overall this opinion might hold true, there are things to be done by Georgia for compelling the West to allocate those resources in support of its cause. The EU and the US are far from being unequivocal on such need. Many Europeans believe it is more rational to concede to Russia’s post-imperial ambitions now, take advantage of a trade and wait until Russia’s declining economy and population will eventually cause an unavoidable collapse of its current form of governance.
In the US, influential figures like Henry Kissinger also propose a “midway” deal of “balanced dissatisfaction”, according to which, most importantly, Ukraine (and following the logic, also Georgia) should not join NATO. All these arguments contain some degree of rationality from the Western perspective and may therefore prevail in shaping the Western response to Russia’s actions in the post-Soviet space. What is more, their presence in the Western discourse incentivizes Russia to further pursue its irredentist dream. In case the Ukraine crisis is “localized”, Russia may switch more aggressively to Georgia soon. So what can Russia do and how should we avoid it?
It has been a commonplace in Georgia’s expert community to argue that after 2008 war, Russia has little additional levers remaining to realistically block Georgia’s path towards the EU and NATO. However, the recent actions in Ukraine have broadened the range of aggressive tools that Russia may take against Georgia.
In seeking to discourage Georgia from signing the Association Agreement with the EU, it is likely to threaten with “formal” incorporation of the Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia into the Russian Federation. Incorporating this region will not, however, be an end in itself. Those who have witnessed how absurd Kremlin’s threshold of “provocations” from “the other side” may be to “justify” its aggressive military maneuvers, will certainly agree that sharing a de facto boundary with a territory that, according to Kremlin, is formally annexed into Russia is far more dangerous than an uneasy neighborhood with occupied South Ossetia.
Another potential danger, much discussed today, stems from certain Kremlin-affiliated pundits’ proposals for “establishing a direct border between Russia and Armenia”, for the proper inclusion of the latter into the Russian-led Customs Union. This scenario foresees “the just settlement of Ossetian and Javakhetian territorial issues”, meaning widening of the South Ossetian lands and linking them up with the newly autonomous Javakheti.
Only months ago such speculations sounded delirious, but President Vladimir Putin’s promise to “protect the compatriots” coupled with swift actions to that end in Ukraine, has brought it into the range of a probability. Worryingly, in a recent statement an Armenian MP openly warned Georgia of Armenian uprising in Javakheti region in case Tbilisi continued its quest for NATO accession. The estimated 5,000 Russian troops stationed in Tskhinvali region are a stone throw away from Javakheti region and may well be used to “protect” the ethnic Armenians of Javakheti, many of which might turn out to have Russian passports. The Kremlin-styled “justification” of a permanent need for a trans-Caucasian “security corridor” dividing Georgia is then just a concomitant task.
Here is then what Georgia can do to push the possibility of the above scenario towards the direction of improbable, and to be better prepared for protecting its national interests if some parts of it still materialize.
First, the newly created Crisis Management Council of the government should, in close coordination with all relevant agencies, elaborate several response scenarios for potentially deteriorating situation on the ground, including the administrative boundary lines and Javakheti region. Early means of preventing destabilization along the occupation lines and protecting civilian population without armed engagement should be explored to avoid the armed response to Russian provocations at later stages. These means may include evacuation plans of adjacent villages as well as deployment of additional international monitoring, media observers, and other.The Office of the State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality in particular, should further enhance its close engagement in all minority populated regions to detect the earliest signs of separatism and opt for preventive action.
Second, Georgia should increase its diplomatic efforts in Europe alongside Ukraine and other like-minded states, to outweigh the Europe’s pro-Russian business lobby. This should be done in the first place through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which would require immediate allocation of much more resources and personnel to the thinly stretched staff of its embassies. The economic rationality of maintaining the alternative routes of energy supply to Europe can be one of the messages to be continuously delivered to European partners. The fall of Georgia under the Russian sway would leave Azerbaijan with little room for maneuver. Control over additional energy resources and routes will further strengthen Russia’s appetite for assaults against Baltic states and beyond.
It is apparent, that even the Nordic states such as Finland are concerned for their security. The shared understanding that we should reach with our Western allies is that it is less costly for them now to refrain from excluding a possibility of military involvement, than to face its unavoidable need later on. Rapid integration of both Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, as the only realistic security safeguard for the independence of both, should also form part of that understanding. Kissinger’s point on Finlandisation of Ukraine is missing a historical context – a midway settlement there was found because Finland successfully resisted Soviet military invasion, not because that kind of settlement was acceptable for Kremlin from the beginning.
Third, Georgia should strengthen existing and seek new – including military - forms of close cooperation with the GUAM partners. The existential threat posed to all four members of the organization should override the divisions among them. Those in the West, who for the sake of peace still have not ruled out conceding to Russia its “near abroad”, should get a clear message that even if left alone, the GUAM countries will not concede their independence peacefully.
Ultimately, it is all about being pro-active and engaged. There is no example in history when nation’s survival from the foreign aggression was secured without its own action. If there is any lesson that Georgia can learn from Finland, Kuwait or Bosnia is that it is insufficient to deplore Western inaction, but is important to act upon threats and convince the allies to act. Russia’s brazen actions in Ukraine just made this task much easier.
About the author:
Teimuraz Antelava is a researcher in international legal theory at the European University Institute, Florence. In 2010-2013 he worked as a head of the UN division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.