The Georgia-Russia Conflict: Views from Brussels

8 minutes
Vladimir Putin in front of a EU flag, Russia - EU summit, May 2007
photo: Antonis Shen - some right reseved

August 25, 2008
By Roderick Kefferpütz and Iris Kempe
By Roderick Kefferpütz and Iris Kempe

On 8 August 2008, the ‘frozen conflict’ in the Georgia - South Ossetia - Russia triangle boiled over, effectively turning into a wildfire that spread deep into the heart of Georgia, as Russia’s army spearheaded into the country halting as little as 20 km away from Tbilisi. Georgian aggression against this break-away republic provided Russian forces with the necessary pretext to march into Georgia proper, reasserting Russian hegemony over part of the neighbourhood shared by Russia and the EU. Russian-style 19th century geopolitics is effectively penetrating into a grey zone that is increasingly drifting towards the 21st century post-modern EU area of integration and co-operation. The Kremlin has switched from aggressive rhetoric, like referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the biggest tragedy of the 20th century (Putin), to military intervention in the “near abroad,” in Georgia, a country struggling for democratic transition, NATO membership and providing a energy corridor to Europe.

A two-pronged crisis

The European Union again finds itself in the middle of a two-pronged crisis. This one pairs the Union’s failure to agree on a European reform treaty with difficulties in its relationship with the Russian Federation, which are dominated by common interests but differing values. Only this time it is by far more urgent and dangerous than poor quality meat exports or the removal of Soviet-era monuments. Not only is it a hard test for Georgian democracy, which President Saakashvili partially endangered with his South Ossetia gambit, but what is also at stake is the very credibility of the European Union to protect its interests and partners abroad if push comes to shove.

Set against this background, the EU’s response to the crisis has initially amounted to little more than a flurry of standard diplomatic démarches and an initial cease-fire that did not hold, as opposed to a concrete strategy with clear aims and policies towards both Georgia and Russia.

European squabbles

Instead of presenting a common front with a clear strategy, the European Union has, yet again, fragmented into disunity amongst its member states. While Poland, the Baltic States, and the United Kingdom advocate a tough approach towards Moscow including measures such as suspending the visa facilitation agreement and the negotiations on a new far-reaching Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA), France and Germany have called for restraint and stress the importance of engaging Russia constructively. In this vein, ‘nothing was really decided’ (in the words of Carl Bildt, Foreign Minister of Sweden) after the emergency meeting of the European Council on August  13, 2008. Consequently, the Council failed to back up the French-brokered ceasefire of August 13 by failing to endow it with a monitoring mission to verify its implementation.

Such a mission would have provided the EU with clear eyes on the ground and enabled it to form policy according to its own information. Instead, the lack of a monitoring mission has hampered the EU’s intelligence gathering, particularly in light of the disinformation campaigns waged by both Georgia and Russia. Combined with the lack of policy formulation and the demarcation of what is acceptable and what is not, it is unsurprising that the first attempt at a ceasefire fell through.

Merkel and Sarkozy get tough

Although shaky, the second attempt should have slightly better chances than the first because the EU’s biggest member states and the US – countries that matter to Russia – have finally started to increase the pressure. Chancellor Merkel, despite her reservations, has talked about NATO membership for Georgia and President Sarkozy has threatened Russia with ‘serious consequences’ if the peace deal is not respected ‘rapidly and totally’.

Nevertheless, in order to establish itself as a credible actor in the conflict, the European Union, first and foremost, needs to enhance its information network on the ground. Sound policy is based on credible information, and the EU should therefore go ahead and increase co-operation with NGO actors from all Caucasian states and go to regions with violent conflicts to gain a bottom-up assessment of damages and victims. The next step would be to report to European institutions and EU member states. Based on such first-hand information, the European Union should form a monitoring mission by stocking up staff and equipment, as well as widening the mandate of the EUSR office, particularly its Border Support Team.

EU monitoring mission

Secondly, the European Union can play a key role in strengthening the human security dimension. Russia’s scorched earth campaign, while highlighting Russia’s frustration, is intended to destabilise Georgia’s infrastructure and erode support for Saakashvili. Although the latter should not be a specific EU concern, the EU must prevent a humanitarian crisis triggered by the former. Essential supplies and temporary shelter have to be provided for refugees and transport routes established. This is one of the reasons why the EU would be well advised to think in dimensions of an inclusive approach based on the entire South Caucasus. Any kind of humanitarian aid and civil society co-operation should be conditional on democratic transition in Georgia.

Thirdly, the Georgia - Russia crisis has again brought to the fore deep fissures between EU member states. This needs to be addressed. For the countries that shook off the mantle of the Soviet Union less than two decades ago this crisis is a reminder of past treatment. The EU as well as NATO need to take these reasonable fears into consideration and reaffirm their commitment to these countries’ security.

The EU - a superfluous mediator?

Furthermore the European Union should readjust its relations with Russia. The West must bear in mind that now Moscow no longer rules out military confrontations as a means of pursuing its interests. Accordingly the EU has to more clearly define its external policies. Should a country like Georgia, which has strategic importance for the West because of its role as a transit country for oil and natural gas, be left to a Russian sphere of influence? The EU must ask itself such uncomfortable questions and face up to the uncomfortable answers, if it is to be more than a superfluous “mediator” in the step-by-step recreation of a Russian empire.

Finally, to contribute to the long-term stabilisation of the Southern Caucasus and to protect their interests, European states need to rally around a common policy that draws clear-cut boundaries for Georgia and Russia, the former of which tends to mistake Western support for a carte blanche, while the latter has a talent for exploiting the fog of war, conducting ambiguous policies open to interpretation, and taking advantage of disagreements within EU ranks.

Clear rules within a shared neighbourhood

Such a policy needs to be based on concrete answers to some very difficult questions. The European Union needs to realistically determine its interests in, and relationships with, the region and ask itself how far it is willing to protect them, even with peacekeepers and a military option if need be. If not for Georgia, a vital energy supply country, will it do so for Ukraine? If not Ukraine, then where do the boundaries lie? After answering these fundamental questions the European Union needs to condition its relationship with the countries in the region accordingly. That means clearly defining the contours of the relationship in order for countries, such as Georgia, to know the limits of Western support, while simultaneously warning Moscow what is acceptable, and what is not, within a shared neighbourhood.

If it wants to be respected in the region, the EU must arrive at a common policy, one that sets obvious limits in what it allows to happen in its neighbourhood and what not. Failure to do so will only invite future revisionism to the detriment of the EU’s interests.

Roderick Kefferpütz, project co-ordinator, EU Regional Office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Brussels
Iris Kempe, director, Heinrich Böll Foundation Regional Office South Caucasus, Tbilisi