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High Stakes Chess

September 9, 2008

Russia's agreement to withdraw troops from the buffer zones is a step in the right direction, but a solution to the Caucasus conflict is still a long way off, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel.


The announcement of Russian President Medvedev to pull back Russian troops from the Georgian central zone is a small success for the European Union and the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the EU Council presidency.

Through the abandonment of the negotiations over a partnership and cooperation settlement between the EU and Russia, a unanimous Europe has made it clear that it does not seek partnership with Russia at any price. That is how the EU has succeeded in making Russia give in without having to use rhetoric to heat up the dispute. The Europeans' calm, mediating politics has thus brought them a small symbolic win.

Moscow's clever chess tactics

Ingo Mannteufel
Ingo Mannteufel

Russia's acceptance was, however, a clever chess tactic by President Medvedev, since, in withdrawing its troops from the buffer zones, Russia actually does not lose much ground. The withdrawal plays no part regarding military strategy: Russian army units continue to secure the renegade regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Neither has Russia lost out from a diplomatic or political perspective: Russia continues to disregard the principle of Georgia's territorial integrity by its recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence.

Russia's agreement to Europe's demand of withdrawing troops from the buffer zone should therefore not be seen as a political turning point in the Caucasus conflict. It is much more a symbolic gesture to Europe. Russia has also made the decision not to heat up the dispute with Europe further -- but no more than that. On the same day as the withdrawal agreement, there were further signs that the conflict is simply moving into a second stage as Georgia accused Russia of ethnic cleansing at the International Court in The Hague.

Conflict continues

Sarkozy's visit is a long way from reaching a solution to the Caucasus conflict. The fundamental problem remains: Russia has used Georgian aggression against the separatist regime in South Ossetia to recognize the independence of the pro-Russian regions.

In doing so, Moscow has violated the principle of the invulnerability of post-soviet territory borders -- also legally -- for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union 17 years ago. That does not just mean a dangerous situation for Georgia, but a threatening development for peace on the Eurasian continent. That is why a Caucasus stability pact is necessary -- a pact which Russia and the EU are hopefully drawing closer to with the arrangement to send over 200 EU observers to oversee the ceasefire.

Ingo Mannteufel heads Deutsche Welle's Russian online and radio departments (ah)