Why Georgia and Russia are on the brink of war

The situation around Georgian-Russian relations is worrying. It appears both parties have certain incentives to go to war. After Russian president Putin practically proclaimed partial recognition Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in April, the Georgians stepped up efforts to put diplomatic pressure on Russia, Europeans and the US supported Georgia through statements, calling for restraint and talks. However, the situation might spark into an open conflict almost any time, as both Russians and Georgians have certain lucrative goals to achieve in a war in Abkhazia and/or South Ossetia.

Russians would like to teach a lesson to Georgians for being pro-western and too willing to join NATO. Through teaching a lesson to Georgians Russia would hope to obliquely teach the West and other FSU countries that harbour similar aspirations of joining NATO, namely and most importantly Ukraine. A victorious war would also reassure Russian influence in the Caucasus and perhaps even in Georgia, because in a war situtation Russians could more easily to stage a coup de etat in Georgia, if things go very well for them. If things go wrong and Russia loses, they will still get an oil price hike, because Baku-Ceynan pipeline will be endangered. So there is not much to lose, seemingly, especially as Russians believe Georgia is not a serious enemy to consider. There is still a possibility though, that if Russia loses out in Abkhazia and/or South Ossetia, it will destabilise the North Caucasus, because the guerilla separatists will perceive this as weakening Russia.

There are some oblique signs though on the Russians’ side that they are afraid of a conflict. They deployed ethnic Chechens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, apparently they try to scare off the Georgians from attacking these territories by doing so. Russians are not prepared to let North Caucasian volunteers to go to war to South Caucasus, as they are afraid of dealing with these volunteers afterwards. At the same time Russians cannot afford any significant losses in ethnic Russian manpower, as it will not be received well in Russia. So the decision to be made is not simple and I am not sure it has been made. Also an open invasion of Russian troops will jeopardise Russia’s international standing, posing it as an agressor.

Georgia on its side hopes to receive support from the West enough that would allow it to keep Russians from openly invading Abkhazia and South Ossetia in unlimited numbers of the military. Then it could hope to defeat the small numbers of Russian troops in these regions and the local forces. It is unclear though, whether Russians will really abstain from open invasion. Also it is unclear how long the war(s) would take. Only a very short war would satisfy Georgians and their western allies, not a long, bloody, civil conflict. Georgians may have another possible incentive to go to war, they will hope, that Russians are not prepared to destabilise the situation close to the location where 2014 Olympic games are to be held.

Third parties like the West might be tempted to teach a lesson to the Russians through Georgians, but this is a very hazardous game, of course, with highly probable unforeseen complications, like restarting hostilities in other Caucasus regions like Nagorny Karabakh, oil prices hikes, reshuffle of the political map in the Caucasus. The West potentially has less to lose, than Russia and Russia has even less to lose than Georgia, and last of of all Abkhazia and South Ossetia will lose most of all, as their territories will be ruined again and people will die.

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