Accepting the Inevitable?

7 june 2009

Mikhail Troitsky is an associate professor at the Department of International Relations and Russia’s Foreign Policy of the MGIMO University. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: As long as U.S. President Barack Obama is intent on pursuing a more pragmatic foreign policy than his predecessor, who considered supporting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to be a matter of principle, American stakes in the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may decrease.

The U.S. approach to the unrecognized states in the South Caucasus was summed up by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden at the Munich Security Conference on February 7, 2009. He said that the “United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.” Indeed, U.S. policy towards Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh is nuanced and is shaped by a mixture of ideological, geopolitical and domestic factors. This article analyzes the sources of U.S. policy and prospects for a lasting solution to the problem of unrecognized states in the South Caucasus given the conflicting views of major powers in that region.


America’s stake in the future of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh hinges on Washington’s broader policy priorities in the South Caucasus. In their statements, high-ranking U.S. officials have mentioned a number of U.S. policy goals that have a bearing on the unrecognized entities of the South Caucasus. Promoting transit routes that would bypass Russia became a major U.S. priority in the mid-1990s. Washington has repeatedly stated that it supports the diversification of energy transit routes and, more generally, of the transport infrastructure in Eurasia. This effectively meant creating alternative transit ways bypassing Russia’s territory. For example, the U.S. government strongly promoted the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which has become a major outlet for the oil produced by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan on the Caspian shelf.

Another important U.S. policy goal that has gained salience in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, is combating terrorism and denying potential terrorists of an opportunity to have a safe haven in any region of the world. In October 2001, the United States began cooperating with Tbilisi on combating the extremist Muslim elements that were based in the Pankisi Gorge. The Gorge had provided shelter to the Chechen militants fighting with the Russian troops in Chechnya since the early 1990s. By requesting U.S. assistance in resolving the Pankisi Gorge problem in October 2001, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze demonstrated commitment to security cooperation with Washington and gave a start to the U.S.-Georgia alliance relationship that was further enhanced by his successor Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgian troops were deployed in Iraq from August 2003 until August 2008 to support U.S. operations in that country. With the number of Georgian military personnel reaching 2,000 by the time of their withdrawal in the wake of Georgia’s armed confrontation with Russia, Georgia was the second largest contributor to allied forces in Iraq among non-NATO nations.

U.S. policy in the South Caucasus has been affected by two powerful domestic interest groups – the Armenian lobby, which prevented Washington from developing relations with Armenia’s rival – Azerbaijan – in 1991-1994, and transnational energy corporations that grew increasingly interested in the Azeri and Kazakh oil and natural gas after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Eventually, the latter groups made sure that the United States normalized relations with Azerbaijan and supported the Contract of the Century – the 1994 deal to develop Azeri oil by an international consortium involving – among others – Britain’s BP, America’s Amoco and Russia’s Lukoil.

On the “ideological front,” starting from 2003 the Bush administration consistently presented Georgia as a showcase of democratic transformation and Washington’s important ally in the global fight against terrorism. The U.S. officials made repeated statements that Georgia was a democracy stronghold in the South Caucasus, a society which had successfully removed authoritarian rulers and had firmly allied with the U.S. As a flip side, America’s international prestige of a supporter of Georgia’s democratic transformation became dependent on the outcome of the domestic reform and external policies pursued by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The United States also sought to ensure that no other great power be able to decisively influence the internal developments in the region and its external ties. This primarily concerned Russia with which the United States was engaged – for the most part of the 2000s – in a thinly veiled rivalry over the influence on the three South Caucasian republics. At the same time, in the wake of the August 2008 war in South Ossetia, Washington worked to avoid resumption of armed hostilities around the Caucasian unrecognized states. A renewed armed clash after August 2008 would be considered a failure of U.S. diplomacy because Washington gave assurances that it deplored the use of force and, in any case, would have never approved of such measure by the Georgian leadership. A new attempt by Tbilisi to get hold of South Ossetia or Abkhazia would also cast doubt on America as an effective mediator in the region.

Finally, the U.S. sought to maintain the interest of South Caucasian states in cooperating with or acceding to NATO. NATO’s cohesion and credibility depend on the presence of states willing to be admitted to or engage with the Alliance. While Georgia’s chances for admittance to NATO began to be seriously considered even before 2007, Azerbaijan remained cautious not to irritate Russia by intensifying dialogue with NATO. Armenia, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization led by Russia, received close attention by NATO and U.S. representatives who encouraged Yerevan to rethink its defense commitments and turn towards NATO.

U.S. policy towards the South Caucasian unrecognized entities has been developing against the backdrop of important external factors, both of geopolitical and ideological nature. First of all, U.S.-Russia rivalry in the post-Soviet space accelerated in the wake of the “colored” revolutions of 2003-2004 in Georgia and Ukraine. Each side seeks to draw the countries that are balancing between Moscow and Washington (such as Azerbaijan) and disengage the states that ally with the rival power, from it (such as Armenia or Uzbekistan). Russian and U.S. security and trade institutions compete in demonstrating that their projects are the most attractive and therefore should be chosen by countries that have not yet defined their alignment.

As a primary indication of the competition, Moscow and Washington have engaged in the negative imaging of each other. The U.S. administration has been casting Russia as a consolidating autocracy – economically successful (at least before the onset of the world economic meltdown in the autumn of 2008) and therefore dangerous for the “free world.” Moscow responded by denouncing the U.S. ambition to keep up a unipolar world order and promote America’s parochial security agenda with little regard for other countries’ concerns. Russia has been looking forward to a demise of U.S. global positions, including collapse of the U.S. dollar, defection of allies, and growing domestic discontent with the costs of being the world hegemon.

Both Moscow and Washington believed that sheer power, as an ability to influence the developments in a particular region, is convertible to economic gains, since potential investors seek stability and would rely on protection by the most powerful actor in the region. For the United States this meant that Washington had to confirm its credibility as a defender of Tbilisi – if the U.S. wanted to promote foreign investment in Georgia as a means of Georgia’s economic recovery. Furthermore, should the U.S.-championed economic and political reforms in Georgia succeed, a potent example may be set that a small state can reap substantial economic and political benefits from following America’s advice and firmly allying with the United States.

Against this strategic backdrop, since 2003-2004, U.S. policy towards the South Caucasian unrecognized entities has been driven by a number of important imperatives. First, Washington needs to maintain its credibility as a power that enjoys the right of veto over any potential resolution of the problem of unrecognized states. Second, America’s ability to influence the fate of the South Caucasian unrecognized states is regarded by U.S. policymakers as a sign of Washington’s overall influence in the region. Third, the U.S. seeks to prove that increased economic interactions and the liberal economic regime are the best stimuli for a political unity or reintegration. If Georgia proves to be an economic success story, it would significantly increase the chances that the breakaway territories will opt for rejoining it. Also, it would confirm the claim that economic progress is a powerful cure for political and ethnic divisions.

One strategic goal of the United States is indeed to bring Georgia closer to or admit it to NATO. This cannot be achieved without a final settlement of the problem of the separatist enclaves. Both Tbilisi and Washington would prefer to see Abkhazia and South Ossetia reintegrated into Georgia. Yet, given the difficulty of negotiations and of a forced reintegration in the aftermath of the August 2008 war, the United States may instead favor a declaration by Tbilisi that would formally exempt the two breakaway republics from Tbilisi’s control and yet leave the reintegration option open for any time in the future. (Such a compromise decision was made by the Federal Republic of Germany after Germany’s division: it acknowledged the loss of the eastern L?nder and yet provided by the Basic Law that they can return to the FRG at any time in the future.)


A shift in Washington’s policy towards Georgia’s breakaway regions occurred in late 2007-early 2008. Before, the United States presumed that time was on the side of Georgia and regarded it as an important ally of the United States in the South Caucasus and in Eurasia in general. America was backing Tbilisi mainly by diplomatic means. Washington verbally supported Georgia’s territorial integrity and approved of Tbilisi’s efforts to change the status quo in negotiations on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and on the presence of the Russian peacekeeping corps which ensured the de-facto independence of the two entities. Specifically, Washington proposed that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution demanding that the Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zones be replaced by an international contingent. At the same time, the American intermediaries realized that:

  • a dramatic change in the status quo in the conflict zones, such as the withdrawal of the Russian contingent, may result in resumed fighting, potential civilian casualties and massive refugee flows;
  • although the conflict between Tbilisi and the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was primarily rooted in historical rivalries and ethnic animosities, it had a significant economic dimension.

The choice between alliance with Moscow or reconciliation with Tbilisi by Abkhasia and South Ossetia depended on which side could best protect the economic interests of their ruling elites.

Friendship with Russia posed no threat to the assets and the enrichment schemes deployed by Tskhinval and Sukhumi, while the Georgian government would certainly attempt to expropriate these assets and close the customs loopholes that secured profits from trade with Russia for the breakaway republics. A marked change of the situation required massive investment flows to Abkhazia and South Ossetia that would provide their leaders with new sources of income. That was the only way to achieve economic and, eventually, political disentanglement of Abkhasia and South Ossetia from Russia.

As a result, until 2008, the United States was cautious not to ruin the arrangements that ensured stability – although imperfect – in the conflict zones. However, it was clear to Washington that it lacked the incentives that could bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into Georgia. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza acknowledged in early 2008 that the United States was not able to commit enough financial resources – either as government aid or private investments – to “buy out” South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Russia. Nothing but a massive financial windfall – conditioned on Georgia’s reunification – could give Tbilisi a hope of peacefully restoring its sovereignty over the breakaway republics. Of course, the money could only come from a such powerful supporter and sponsor as the United States.

With the lack of financial and diplomatic means, changing the situation required other instruments. To implement the strategic goal of reintegrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian government, supported by the U.S., chose the tactics of military force. The United States helped improve the combat capabilities of the Georgian armed forces – first, through the Train and Equip program (2002-2004) and then through the Sustainment and Stability Operations Program (Phases 1 and 2). These initiatives provided the Georgian government with about 100 million dollars for enhancing its army’s counterterrorism capabilities and preparing Georgian units for operations in Iraq. However, these efforts fell short of making the Georgian armed forces ready for a massive military campaign against Abkhazia or South Ossetia. In order to keep that option open, Tbilisi had to dramatically raise its defense budget to almost 30 percent of the country’s GDP by 2008.

Debate on whether the United States encouraged or acquiesced with Tbilisi’s plans to invade South Ossetia in August 2008 continues unabated. There is little evidence that Washington could officially approve of such action if consulted by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Yet it is clear that the April 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration set a timeline for Tbilisi to resolve its internal territorial problems. Under a strong influence by the U.S., which was widely reported in the media, the leaders of NATO countries asserted that Georgia (and Ukraine) “will become members of NATO” and announced that a further decision on the prospects for Georgia’s (and Ukraine’s) NATO membership would be made at the December 2008 meeting of NATO foreign ministers. The next step could have been granting a Membership Action Plan to Georgia. In any case, the Bucharest declaration clearly implied that Tbilisi had several remaining months of 2008 to achieve a decisive progress in the reunification as a precondition for joining NATO. Tbilisi took the Bucharest message as a green light for dealing with the breakaway regions as it wished. In their turn, American policymakers, knowing the situation on the ground, could have little doubt that Tbilisi would choose to resort to military force.

The Ossetia war of August 2008 demonstrated that even if the Bush administration did not give President Saakashvili an official green light, the United States was ready to back Tbilisi diplomatically and, possibly, militarily during the conflict. According to some Russian military experts, the air defense capabilities available to the Georgian armed forces were insufficient to shoot down three Russian combat aircraft. This could be accomplished with the help of the U.S. or NATO AWACS planes which were present in or near the Georgian airspace.

The shift in the U.S. views on the timeframe and suitable means to resolve Georgia’s territorial problems reflected a broader change in Washington’s policy in the post-Soviet space that occurred by the end of President George W. Bush’s second term in office. The United States was more prepared to take risks than in the 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, American strategy mostly relied on soft power (educational projects, economic aid, diplomacy, etc.). The U.S. avoided overdramatizing security challenges in the Russian neighborhood and casting them in the ideological terms of a “struggle between the forces of democracy and the autocratic regime.”

By the end of this decade, Russia, which sought to counterbalance America’s influence, also learned to employ soft power in the form of financial aid, state loans, discounted arms supplies and diplomatic support to the incumbent regimes in the neighboring countries. When the limits of American soft power in the Russian neighborhood were exhausted, the U.S. resorted to more energetic ways of changing the status quo in the short term. Support for an accelerated transition of power from less democratic leaders to more “liberal” politicians – who strongly relied on the American backing – became Washington’s favored instrument. Now the United States sought to dramatize and accelerate the choices that their potential allies were expected to make. Serbia in 2000-2001, Georgia in 2003-2004 and Ukraine in 2004-2005 were all “prompted” to make a dramatic choice. Yet they responded to that choice in different ways: whereas the leaders of Serbia and Ukraine could not fully align with the United States due to the strong resistance of powerful political groups at home, Georgia, where the voice of any opposition to the incumbent president was effectively silenced, chose to pursue the risky course of antagonizing Russia – its powerful neighbor in the post-Soviet space which was at loggerheads with the United States.

As for the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, the United States has been engaged in mediation since 1997 as a co-chair of the Minsk Group created under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Since 2006, Washington has undertaken several unilateral attempts to organize Armenian-Azerbaijani summits to discuss the prospects for resolving the conflict behind closed doors. The United States has been closely following Russia’s mediation initiatives and on several occasions prevented Moscow from reaping the benefits of the main mediator, even though such action showed little promise of substantial progress. Washington sought to raise the profile of public diplomacy in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and to foster exchanges between the two states at the grassroots level. However, this approach has yielded limited results so far, because the level of inter-ethnic tensions remains very high and each side considers a favorable resolution of the Karabakh dispute to be a matter of principle. In addition, Azerbaijani and Armenian positions are supported within the United States by different lobbies, each of which would press the administration hard to undermine the resolution of the Karabakh dispute that it will consider to be disadvantageous. At the same time, any settlement would require concessions from the sides and will give ample food for speculation about who lost more.

Remarkably, U.S. and Russian attempts to outmaneuver each other in conflict mediation were also typical of the Transnistrian conflict. In Transnistria, Washington made sure that no agreement that was mediated exclusively by Russia was implemented. U.S. diplomats sought to demonstrate that Moscow alone was not in the position to effectively influence the conflicting parties and sponsor a final settlement. The best-known episode of this kind occurred in October 2003 when the U.S. and the EU blocked the agreement mediated by Russia. Multiple accounts of the situation suggested that Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin turned down the final document after telephone conversations with EU and U.S. politicians. In all likelihood, he was convinced by Western diplomats that time was on his side: with the eventual accession of Romania into the EU and Moldovan citizens given an opportunity to obtain Romanian passports, the Transnistrians could be expected to happily rejoin Moldova.


Any path towards a resolution of the South Caucasian separatist conflicts will be painful to all the parties involved – the unrecognized entities, “parent” states and mediators. To alleviate the pain, a set of guiding principles is necessary to agree upon by at least some of the major actors. It is unlikely that any better principle can be found than that of precedent. What is needed is common interpretation of the past experience of secessionist conflicts.

It may be suggested that the guiding principle for the settlement of particular conflicts in the South Caucasus can be an “index of inevitability.” This index could be estimated against several criteria that could be agreed upon by the parties. The criteria could include, for example:

  • the nature of dividing lines. As a rule, inter-ethnic hostilities are more difficult to manage than political disagreements or differences over the distribution of resources among the regions of an ethnically homogenous country;
  • the history of controversies that gave rise to a secessionist movement. The need for separation becomes more convincing if made on the grounds of a long-time oppression of an ethnic or religious minority by the ruling elite;
  • legal grounds for self-determination. These can include the conditions on which the secessionist regions entered the “parent” country, or any legal norms related to the possibility of separation;
  • the demographic dynamics in the conflict zone. It gets ever more difficult to prevent secession driven by an ethnic group which constitutes a majority of the population in a given area, wishes to secede and is growing at a faster rate than other ethnic groups that may be opposed to secession.
  • refugees. Refugees’ rights to return to the abandoned land and take part in deciding the future of the seceding area usually become a major stumbling block in a conflict. Restitution of property to the refugees and acknowledging their right to vote on the status of their (former) land are usually non-starters for a separatist government. And yet accommodation of refugee demands is often made by mediators and broader international community as a pre-requisite to recognition.
  • ability of the unrecognized entities to maintain security and implement democratic norms on its territory. As indicated by a number of observers, the quality of governance in breakaway territories becomes an increasingly powerful argument of the separatist authorities seeking recognition.

When applying these criteria to determine what kind of settlement is “inevitable,” mediators should also strive to minimize the total cost of human suffering as a result of the conflict and the proposed settlement.

It may be argued that the United States has employed the “inevitability” argument when promoting particular options of resolving secessionist conflicts after the end of the Cold War. In the case of Bosnia, Washington assumed that the high level of inter-ethnic hostilities in the former Yugoslavia excluded an opportunity for return to an integrated state. At the same time, allowing an extreme fragmentation of Yugoslavia was not an option either because in that case the dividing lines would have deepened while fighting could resume at any moment. These circumstances apparently played a significant role in the shaping of U.S. position on the future of Bosnia. Bosnia was kept as an integral state (although a loose federation), the irredentist movements of the Bosnian Serbs and Croats were quenched, and the attempts by some Bosnian Muslim fighters to describe their struggle in terms of religious jihad were cut short.

In Somalia, the potent forces of disintegration ruined all hopes not only of retaining the country’s territorial integrity, but of providing even a minimal level of human security – alleviating starvation and pacifying rampant warlords. On top of that, the presence of U.S. peacekeeping troops in the remote African land was difficult to justify in the eyes of the American public. As a result, Washington opted out of Somalia in 1993-1994 and limited its attempts at projecting influence on this country to supporting the movements that opposed the most radical elements. Even the grave threat that Somalia-based pirates pose to commercial navigation has so far not compelled the United States and its allies to seek authorization for a ground operation to eliminate the pirates’ bases.

In Kosovo, the decision on the inevitability of secession was evidently made by Washington and most EU capitals against the backdrop of years of inter-ethnic strife and the demographic dynamics that favored the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo. Whether human suffering in this case can be minimized depends on the ability of the Kosovo authorities to protect the rights of the Serbian minority in Kosovo and handle the return of refugees. Although it remains unclear whether the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo can be made physically safe, Kosovo has set a powerful precedent which can be useful in defining “inevitable” outcomes for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh.

*   *   *

U.S. policy towards the South Caucasian unrecognized states has been aimed at supporting Georgia as a major U.S. ally in the region, diminishing Russia’s leverage on the South Caucasian republics, and developing energy transportation routes to bypass Russia. Washington’s mediation efforts in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of a broader strategy that involved other economic and diplomatic projects.

The United States worked to support the political forces in the Transcaucasian republics which did not have to fear “colored” revolutions because Moscow was commonly seen in Armenia and Azerbaijan as a bulwark against popular uprisings that shattered Georgian and Ukrainian regimes in 2003 and 2004, respectively. However, such U.S. policy has yielded but limited results in Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev reserved his office for life at the end of 2008, and in Armenia, where opposition lost in the presidential elections in February 2008.

In an attempt to consolidate its influence, Washington has been promoting cooperation of regional states with NATO as an alternative to their membership in Russia-led institutions. This primarily concerns Armenia which continues to suffer from geographic isolation and has poor relations with three of its four neighbors – Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. However, Yerevan has refrained from switching alliances while Baku has been cautious to maintain a “non-aligned” status with regard to NATO or the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The United States also sought to mediate other conflicts in the region, including the most controversial Turkish-Armenian relationship. Washington regarded alleviating tensions between Ankara and Yerevan as a pre-condition for a potential change in Armenia’s political orientation.

For all its interest in the South Caucasus, the United States was not prepared to seriously commit itself to the defense of the Transcaucasian republics. Apart from moral support, Georgia did not receive the material backing it expected from Washington during the military confrontation with Russia over South Ossetia in August 2008. As long as U.S. President Barack Obama is intent on pursuing a more pragmatic foreign policy than his predecessor, who considered supporting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to be a matter of principle, American stakes in the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may decrease. However, even if the ideological component of U.S. policy in the South Caucasus becomes less pronounced, Washington’s material interests will persist in America’s support of Georgia. Whether such support will continue to cause strong Russian-U.S. differences over membership of the regional states in multilateral structures depends on how deep the reassessment (if any) of the relationship between Moscow and Washington will be in 2009.

The current economic turmoil has somewhat soothed U.S.-Russian contradictions on security matters as each side has been keen to win the image of a responsible stakeholder in the global security  – which is currently tested by far more serious matters than tug-of-war in the South Caucasus. Should the missile defense dispute between Moscow and Washington turn out to be manageable against the background of growing cooperation on Afghanistan, the gaps in Russian and U.S. approaches to the security of countries surrounding Russia may be bridged. An additional factor that may ease up tensions in the Caucasus and elsewhere around Russia is the turn of Georgian leadership to a less provocative approach towards both Moscow and Washington.

The two earlier rounds of U.S.-Russian rapprochement – under Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton in the early 1990s and under Presidents Putin and Bush in the early 2000s – were the result of difficult compromises when each side chose to drift  away from what it previously considered matters of principle. However, in both cases the thaw proved to be short-lived. The challenges to U.S.-Russian relations currently faced by Presidents Medvedev and Obama seem to have finally reached the root causes of differences in U.S. and Russian approaches to international politics. If these contradictions are successfully overcome, there is hope that U.S.-Russian dialogue will see a sustained improvement with the ensuing benefits for the economy and security of the entire world.

Last updated 7 june 2009, 23:17

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