07.06.2009
Accepting the Inevitable?
№2 2009 April/June
Mikhail Troitsky

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.

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.

WHY ENGAGE IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS?

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.)

PRE-WAR POLICY CHANGES

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.

THE POWER OF THE PRECEDENT

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.