Initial Thoughts on Russia’s Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

A blog is usually an opportunity to assert one’s prescience, but I confess I was surprised that Moscow moved to formal recognition of these pseudo-states – although once it became the subject of a parliamentary debate the writing was on the wall, as nothing ends up passed there that hasn’t already been green-lighted by the Kremlin. The ‘if Abkhazia and South Ossetia why not Chechnya?’ point is obvious enough, but to me there are several other, more important questions.

How successful is Russian foreign policy? However fashionable it may be to sneer at Russia’s heavy-handedness, if the ultimate aim of foreign policy is to permit a national leadership to do what it wants, when it wants, then it seems pretty successful.

How effective is Europe? This move underlines the essential contempt the Russian leadership appears to have for the European states; furthermore, it is a contempt which appears justified. In the name of not isolating Russia, Europe seems eager to placate it. If I could see a single significant sign that Russia has in any way reciprocated by making concessions of its own, I could see the rationale, but I confess I cannot.

What does Russia want? Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in themselves insignificant, their real value is as levers with which to put pressure on Georgia and the rest of the world. But doing everything to block alternative pipeline routes and warning Ukraine of the consequences of flouting Moscow have obviously been deemed worth whatever – short-term – trouble might be stirred up in the West.

Who is in charge? The whole question of how the Putin-Medvedev ‘tandemocracy’ works becomes in a way irrelevant; there is no reason to believe Medvedev feels at all uncomfortable with the present policy and indeed he is beginning (not altogether successfully) to try to ape some of Putin’s tough-guy rhetoric. Either he is completely in Putin’s thrall or else he is of the same mind, but in practical terms the outcome is the same. Perhaps more interesting is the attempt to find some nuancing within the Russian power elite. The GRU (military intelligence) seemed quite bullish from the start, but they have long been closely linked with the South Ossetian and Abkhaz regimes. The military, interestingly, do not seem to have associated themselves so wholeheartedly with the venture – it is interesting in passing that Deputy Chief of the General Staff Col. Gen. Nogovitsyn has very much been making the running rather that Defence Minister Serdyukov or his ally/client CoGS Makarov. Nogovitsyn – who was also the man who warmed Poland it was now a nuclear target for agreeing to base US ABM systems, something later softened by the Kremlin – appears to represent the more outspoken wing of the High Command. That said, Serdyukov has done nothing to distance himself from the invasion. Nor does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs evince any awkwardness about the current situation. So, any hopes that there is in any meaningful sense a division between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ in Moscow is also wishful thinking.

Perhaps most striking overall, though, is the extent to which this is Realpolitik at its rawest. An interesting interview today of Medvedev with the BBC’s Moscow correspondent ( seemed pretty uncompromising. Comfortable notions of a new diplomacy built of cultural interchange and moral suasion seem to have come to nothing. To quote the old Imperial British music hall song, “we’ve got the men, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the money, too.” Moscow has the money; its armed forces are in a pretty poor state, but enough to outgun Georgia and it knows it – quite rightly – faces no military threat from NATO. The challenge is surely to find some response that leverages what strengths the outside world does have, something which – whether it means sanctions, more restrictive visa regimes for rich Russians, expulsion or suspension from international bodies, etc – will not come without a price, as Moscow retaliates. But the option is just futile, ritual dismay.

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