The Russian-Georgian Conflict

By Nicholas Dima | September 2, 2008


The former Soviet Union was set up allegedly as a Union of sovereign republics and the republics were based on the main ethnic groups living in old Russia. However, the vast expanse of land occupied by tsarist Russia was inhabited by hundreds of large nationalities or small ethnic groups. There was no way to grant union-level republics to all of them. In addition, many regions were ethnically very much mixed. And more importantly, the goal of the new Soviet leadership was to control the country, not to grant independence to its ethnic components. To give a modicum of satisfaction to the smaller ethnic groups, Moscow granted them various degrees of cultural and administrative autonomy within the larger union republics where they resided. In this regards certain criteria were set up, but they were rather arbitrary and chiefly reflected Moscow’s interests. For Stalin, who was the first commissar for nationality problems and later the ruthless leader of the USSR, everything had to suit his personal hold on power. Coming from Georgia and the ethnically very mixed Caucasus, Stalin was indeed a master of divide and rule. For example, in theory the Soviet constitution allowed for the secession of the union republics. Based upon this illusory provision, Stalin who hated the Tatars, argued that the Tatars should not be granted a union republic because being surrounded by Russian territory ostensibly they could not secede.

Initially, the entire Caucasus region was incorporated into the USSR as a single republic. Later, the communist leaders who came from this region convinced Moscow to split it into three union-level republics, namely Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The northern reaches of the Caucasus, inhabited by a host of smaller ethnic groups, were incorporated into Russia as autonomous republics, and Russia itself was organized as a federation. According to the Soviet laws, the union-level republics had considerably more prerogatives, at least on paper, than the autonomous republics. And there were further territorial divisions in the USSR, such as ethnic Oblasts (regions) and Okrugs (rural areas), which were provided with very limited rights. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were organized as autonomous republics within Georgia, but as long as Georgia itself was under Moscow their autonomy was rather meaningless. The situation changed radically when Georgia declared its independence. To further complicate the regional geopolitical landscape, there is also a North Ossetia autonomous republic just north of South Ossetia, but within the Russian Federation. The Ossetians would like to unite the two areas into a single country, but for the time being they prefer to remain with Russia. In 1991, in order to bring Georgia back into the Russian fold, Moscow helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia fight a war to establish their independence from Tbilisi.

Georgia is a rather small country having an area of 69,700 sq. km. or 27,000 sq. mi.  In 2006 it had a population of 4.7 million which makes it more or less comparable to South Carolina. But Georgia’s geopolitical location is very important to Russia. It occupies a mountainous area south of the main Caucasian range and it has a rather large frontage for its size at the Black Sea. Georgia also borders Russia to the north, Turkey to the south and Armenia and Azerbaijan to the southeast making it a key country in the Caucasus. From a strictly geographic point of view, Georgia can be considered part of Asia, but from a cultural point of view Georgia and Armenia, both of them old Christian nations, consider themselves part of Europe.

From a geopolitical point of view Georgia is important to Russia in two ways. An independent Georgia would block Russia’s direct access to Armenia, its remaining ally in the Caucasus, which would reduce considerably Moscow’s influence in this part of the world. The entire region is close to the sensitive and oil-rich Middle East and the now dangerous south Asia. And if Georgia were to join NATO, as it strongly expressed its intention to do so, this would further reduce Russia’s sphere of influence. In addition, the conflict also has an important economic dimension. Russia is currently the chief supplier of oil and gas to Western Europe and as such it controls nearly all of the oil and gas pipelines to Europe. The recently built oil and gas pipelines from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey cross Georgian territory, however. If Russia loses control over Georgia, it will also start to lose energy control and political leverage over Western Europe. At the same time, the American oil companies that already have big vested interests in the Caspian Sea basin risk losing their positions. All these factors were behind the recent war in Georgia.

Moscow’s struggle to maintain control over the Caucasus began immediately after the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991.Officially, Moscow developed a new strategic concept known as the “far abroad” and the “near abroad.” Consequently, Russia relinquished control over East Europe and the three Baltic states which were considered part of its far abroad area. Yet, this area which is now integrated in the North Atlantic Alliance led by the United States was to be watched carefully by Moscow. Indeed, the recent decision by NATO to deploy advanced weapons in Poland and the Czech Republic was met with a strong Russian reaction. The concept of near abroad, encompassing the remaining former Soviet republics, has been played down in recent years, but it is obvious that Moscow considers this area as within its sphere of influence. The area stretches over Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova in Europe, former Soviet Central Asia, and the Caucasus region. In theory the new independent states that replaced the former Soviet republics are free to choose their way of development. In practice, they have been treated as vassal states. And this is a vast grey area surrounding the new Russian Federation. Most of their inhabitants, save a large proportion of ethnic Russians who moved there during the Russian dominated Soviet regimes, would prefer full independence, but Moscow found ways to block their aspirations. An important tactic was to incite various minorities to revolt against the new independent governments. Once they revolted, Russia intervened to allegedly reestablish peace in the area or to defend the Russian minorities, which in practice meant a new Russian occupation. In the Georgian case, Moscow worked through its Abkhazian and Ossetian proxies.

The conflict in Abkhazia began to brew immediately after Georgia declared its independence and from the beginning the Abkhazians had the full military and economic support of Russia. Then, the war against the government in Tbilisi escalated causing thousands of victims and huge numbers of refugees. Eventually, most ethnic Georgians were expelled and by 1993 the rebel Abkhazians with full Russian support were controlling the territory. A cease-fire, providing for Russian “peacekeeping” troops was signed in Moscow in 1994. Then Russia helped the secessionist region organize its own military forces and even a Black Sea navy stronger than Georgia’s navy. The same ploy was used in South Ossetia. The result is that Georgia was practically broken, but the proud Georgians would not renounce their aspiration for freedom and territorial integrity. To this effect, in January 2004 they elected Mikhail Saakashvilli, a pro-Western and independent-minded young president determined to reintegrate the country and to join the European family of nations. It is not clear why the new government decided to enter South Ossetia on August 7, 2008 to retake it from the secessionists, but this event triggered a direct response from the Russian troops. It appears that it was a trap set up by Moscow to provide an excuse for its own military intervention. The Russians responded with traditional brutality against Georgia as a country, while their Ossetian proxies resorted to criminal acts against the Georgians as individuals. America and the West did not provide the support that Tbilisi needed and expected. The rest is recent history, but it could also be just the beginning of a new era.

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.