What the Georgia-Russia War Did and Didn't Change

A year ago war broke out in the South Caucasus between Russia and Georgia.  At the time, the war was a major news story briefly eclipsing both the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. election campaign on the front pages of newspapers and websites.  The war seemed like a watershed event that would change power relationships and politics in the region.

At first glance, it would seem that the war has had an enormous impact.  A year after the war, Georgia still fears invasion or attack from Russia; South Ossetia and Abkhazia are likely lost to Georgia for the foreseeable future; Georgia is dependent on foreign assistance for its economic survival and national security; the U.S. and Russia have a complex relationship characterized by mutual fear and mutual need; Georgia’s domestic politics are in a low level political crisis; Georgia’s chances of joining NATO are not good; and European views towards Georgia and its larger than life president are decidedly cool.  To some extent, however, all these things were true before the war as well.

The Russia Georgia war in a paradoxical way changed everything and changed nothing.  Accordingly, determining the real impact of the war can be a puzzling task.  The initial fears articulated in Tbilisi and Washington last August have proven false.  The dominoes did not tumble throughout the former Soviet Union; a new Cold War did not occur, President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in power in Georgia; and Russia did not take over Georgia. Although these extreme scenarios did not come to pass, something did change.

The Russia Georgia war solidified political realities which had been present for a while but in a more ambivalent way.  Essentially the result of the war, a year later, is the status quo, only more so.  Russia’s ambitions towards Georgia are now overt and evident.  Similarly, the reality that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are almost certainly lost to Georgia for a long time is now much harder to deny. Before the war it was understood that the U.S. could not really offer military support to Georgia in case of war, but the war made it clear that the U.S. was unable to help a country viewed as one of its closest allies in its time of need.  The weakness of the Saakashvili regime as it backslides from its initial democratic promise was there before the war, but it is more serious now.  Similarly, Georgia’s stock in western Europe, and chances of getting into NATO while weak by the middle of 2008, are now much worse.

Since the war, there is, strangely enough, more certainty in the region.  The ambiguity which, in the months before the war, some chose to see around Russia’s ambitions in the region, Georgia’s chances of soon regaining sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abhkazia, U.S. power in the region, Georgia getting into NATO is no longer there.

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear that policy reflects these new certainties particularly with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Russia’s successful annexation of Abkahzia and South Ossetia last summer makes U.S. statements of ongoing support for Georgian territorial integrity, something that today is only aspirational, seem strange and almost anachronistic.  The U.S. has taken the right position in saying that it will not recognize the independence of these two places, but that is not a full policy addressing the issue.  The absence of a strategy on either the U.S. or Georgian side which reflects the new situation, while holding on to positions that even before the war only made limited sense, will contribute to a hardening of the new reality and push Abkhazia and South Ossetia further into the Russian sphere.

The war changed everything; and it changed nothing, but so far U.S. policy too often only reflects the second half of this statement.