Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered his army to end its war against Georgia -- for now. Author and political scientist Stefan Wolff talked to DW-WORLD.DE about the conflict, its repercussions and the future.
Georgian refugees may think about returning home soon but the future remains uncertain
Stefan Wolff is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution at the University of Nottingham's School of Politics and International Relations. He is also an author and media commentator on international affairs.
DW-WORLD.DE: Do you think the Russian agenda went beyond the official line of defending South Ossetia's claim of autonomy? Some observers have said Moscow is intent on regime change in Tbilisi. What could this mean for the region as a whole?
Stefan Wolff: Russia's agenda has always been more than just "peacekeeping" in South Ossetia -- and Abkhazia for that matter. Primarily, Russia has been worried about NATO getting too close, and for a long time it seemed that keeping the separatist conflicts in Georgia in an unresolved state, but with a relatively stable ceasefire in place, would just be enough. But when Mikhail Saakashvili assumed power in 2004, partly on an agenda to re-unite Georgia, tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow grew and the ceasefire on the ground became more and more unstable.
NATO's Bucharest Summit in April this year confirmed once more that Georgia would be a welcome member of the alliance once its conflicts were resolved. So this is now about both preventing conflict resolution in the long term, teaching Georgia a lesson about Russia's determination and the limited influence of the West in the region, and setting a precedent for anyone else in the region who might be toying with the idea of NATO membership against Russian wishes.
If hostilities were to resume and Russian troops were to go further and enter Tbilisi to overthrow the government, what would happen then? Would Russia claim back the country as part of the Federation or install its own puppet regime?
At the moment, it does not seem likely that Russia will play a direct part in overthrowing the Georgian government, but it has done much to destroy Georgia's military capabilities. If anything, Saakashvili will be the source of his own downfall when people will start asking why Georgia went on the offensive in South Ossetia and so gravely misjudged Russia's willingness to respond so swiftly and effectively, if in the end rather disproportionately.
Saakashvili may have brought his own career to an end
Let's not forget that Saakashvili's authority was severely challenged by the opposition late last year and earlier this year. When the dust has settled, the opposition may well gather momentum again and try to oust Saakashvili. The danger in this would be a prolonged political stalemate, possibly violence similar to the early 1990s when the first post-Soviet leader of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown by internal opposition and replaced by former Soviet foreign minister Edvard Shevardnadse.
Any new, post-Saakashvili government would not necessarily be more pro-Russian -- Georgians are overwhelmingly hostile to their bigger neighbor -- but it would hopefully be more realistic about the balance of power in the Caucasus and the need for reasonably stable and constructive relations with Russia. I think a change of government in Georgia is quite likely in the near future, but a pro-Russian puppet regime, or a reintegration of Georgia into the Russian federation is not. It is unclear, however, whether Russia would not strengthen its ties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia to such an extent that these two regions would become part of Russia in all but name.
What, in your opinion, has been Russia's ultimate goal in the conflict?
For Russia, this is very much about its own security interests: keeping NATO, the EU, and the US at bay, asserting its role as the regional hegemon, and controlling as much as possible the oil and gas resources of the former Soviet Union as a whole. As the development of the situation in Georgia indicates, Russia is quite prepared to pursue these interests by using military force, certainly as long as the outcome of any hostilities is clearly pre-determined. It is one thing to confront Georgia militarily, it would be quite another to take on a country like Ukraine.
The BTC pipeline has reportedly been a Russian target
As far as energy control is concerned, this is an interesting "side-show" of the current conflict in Georgia. The BTC pipeline runs through Georgia and is the main route for oil from the Caspian Sea, especially Azerbaijan, to reach world markets. For Azerbaijan, this is currently the only way to escape Russian control of the pipeline infrastructure, which they have resisted for many years. At the same time, it is thus also the only access that world markets have to Central Asia's resources that cannot be cut off by Russia. Long-term instability in Georgia could make the BTC pipeline too volatile and could hand another big prize to Russia, namely control over the distribution of Caspian and Central Asian energy resources.
How much do you think this campaign was down to Russian President Medvedev and how much is the work of Prime Minister Putin? It seems to have been more in keeping with Putin's plans for a return to Russia's former glories than Medvedev's supposed vision for Russia.
It is pretty clear that Putin has taken full control of the situation, but it is not clear whether anything would be different with Medvedev in charge. There is broad agreement between the two and among Russia's security elite about the country's vital interests. Medvedev might seem a more pleasant character, but he is, if anything, an unknown quantity.
Some say Medvedev was fighting Putin's war
Putin is more predictable, has a track record of how he handles crises, and knows all the major players in the former Soviet Union and the West. His game is very much realpolitik. He will teach Georgia a harsh lesson, set an example for the region, and use every means possible to get rid of Saakashvili.
What do you expect the international reaction to be should Russia restart hostilities and complete the occupation of Georgia?
There would be a lot of rhetoric and high-level shuttle diplomacy. The opponents of a new EU-Russia agreement within the EU would probably manage to delay negotiations, but other than that not much is going to happen. The OSCE and UN are deadlocked over the issue. There is a lame-duck presidency in the US right now, with a whole host of other security problems to handle, and no amount of rhetoric from the president and vice-president can disguise this fact.
The EU and Russia need each other too much -- as energy supplier and market -- to allow their relations to become seriously disturbed over the long term. So I don't see either a full-scale Russian occupation of Georgia nor military aid from the West in the future.
The United States is the main backer and arms supplier of Georgia, its most staunch ally in its bid for NATO membership and has troops based there. How high is the risk of the US under a new president getting involved in any future conflict on a military level?
The US and Russia are unlikely to fight over Georgia
This risk is very limited. It is neither in the US interest to have a military confrontation with Russia over Georgia, nor can I see any spare US capacity for such a military adventure. Let's not forget that the two countries have been through far more serious crises and managed an entire Cold War without direct military engagement.
The Kremlin denounced Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili as a war criminal on Monday. What could the reason be for this statement and what does Russia hope to achieve by portraying Saakashvili as such?
From what we know at this stage, several thousand civilians have been killed during the battle over Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital. Moreover, there have been many reports from refugees about ethnic cleansing of South Ossetian villages by Georgian forces. None of these reports have so far been independently verified, but if they prove true, there would be reasons for an indictment of Saaksahvili, and possibly some of his commanders in the field, on the grounds of violations of the Geneva Convention.
Leaving aside, for a moment, whether this will actually happen, it serves two purposes. It undermines Saakashvili, no matter whether he has a democratic mandate or not, and it underlines the near-impossibility of a future conflict settlement that would see the reintegration of South Ossetia into Georgia. Without mentioning Kosovo, a very obvious parallel is established here.
The EU was in danger of appearing impotent as the crisis wore on without solution. What can the EU do to save face in dealing with the aftermath of this war and in the future should this conflict be resurrected?
Sarkozy had his hands full with the crisis as EU president
The EU obviously takes this crisis very seriously and is engaged at the highest level, with French President Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU presidency at the moment, heading to Moscow and Tbilisi while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner visited both capitals together with his Finish counterpart, who is the current chairman-in-office of the OSCE. From the beginning, the EU has stressed the need for an immediate end to military hostilities and begun to explore what possible deal could be reached to this effect.
The kind of shuttle diplomacy pursued since the weekend, is the standard diplomatic response in such situations, and the very fact that the EU has been involved from the very beginning and at the highest level is a clear sign of its significance as an international player. Even if the EU fails to bring about a cease-fire deal, and I am not at all sure that this will indeed be the case, this is not necessarily the failure of the EU. Quite apart from the fact that no other international organization seems anymore capable at the moment, blaming the EU for a continuation of the fighting would absolve Moscow and Tbilisi of their responsibility, and they are, after all, the ones doing the shooting on the ground.
There never was a military option here for the EU, and I cannot see any member state supporting such an adventure. This is not the kind of conflict that can be solved with military intervention, nor does the EU have the capabilities to do so. Again, this is not a question of impotence, but of sensible political calculation. The EU is very good at mediating and implementing agreements that the conflict parties on the ground are willing to live with, and this is exactly what a conflict like this needs. Escalating violence by bringing in a third conflict party would not bring a stable solution any closer.
What can we expect from the emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Wednesday?
Hopefully, by Wednesday we will have greater clarity about what a possible cease-fire deal might look like and what role the EU can play in its implementation. I would then expect the EU foreign ministers to approve concrete EU actions and a timetable for their implementation. This could go as far as the deployment of EU peacekeeping forces, but more probable perhaps, because of likely Russian opposition to that, would be EU and/or OSCE cease-fire monitors. Such a deal, especially if it involved the OSCE, could be acceptable to Russia, give Russians an opportunity to participate and might then also gain approval by the UN Security Council.