The End of Multi-Vector Policies
No. 4 2008 October/December

Many experts consider the events of September 11, 2001 as the
starting point of a new geopolitical situation. Would it be
justified to equate the role and significance that the events of
August 8, 2008 had for the history of the territory of the former
Soviet Union to that of September 11? Does the South Ossetia
tragedy provide grounds for such comparisons?

The global catharsis promulgated by the international mass media
after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New
York cannot be viewed with the same system of coordinates as the
bloodstains, pain and libel that flooded the global information
medium in the tragic days of August 2008. It is true that the
post-Soviet world has become different, but its image does not have
any clear contours yet. The picture is blurred, fragmented and has
been torn apart into elements prefabricated in different editing
rooms. Everyone is free to compile them into their own mosaics.


Everything seen in the battle for South Ossetia was just one
phase in the complicated continuous transformation of the territory
of the former Soviet Union – the process of an unwavering break
from the “common past” and fashioning a new reality where former
relationships and the declared “multi-vector policies” have given
way to a policy of tough contentions marked by inevitable transient
coalitions and situational unions of “making friendships against

Multi-vector diplomacy, a principle that member-nations of the
CIS have been declaring for years, is not a universal remedy. A new
phase of polarization is taking hold in international relations as
norms of the past are rapidly losing their topicality, while the
elaboration of the new rules of the game is impeded by the
difference of approaches and capabilities of major players and
regional leaders.

All the parties involved in the South Ossetia conflict are
paying for past transgressions. The drama has brought into the
spotlight all the dubious products of the “civilized divorce”
between former Soviet republics in the early 1990s that left a huge
number of unsettled problems pertaining to the so-called
‘unrecognized states.’ Russian diplomacy is partly to blame for
this because its inertia and half-baked steps have created a
situation where the South Caucasus has remained a zone of
instability over all of the seventeen years since the breakup of
the Soviet Union.

Russia has traditionally played the role of a moderator in
relations between the peoples of the South Caucasus. This was not
always a well-balanced policy, but ruptures in the system of
Russia’s influence in the region show that an armed free-for-all is
the most probable alternative to Russia’s withdrawal from the
region, and the series of conflicts that erupted at the end of the
1980s and the beginning of the 1990s provides the best proof of
this. Political scientists in Tbilisi and Baku wonder if a foreign
force – like NATO, the EU or the U.S. – can get a tight grip on the
Caucasus and block unfavorable trends if Russia pulls out of the
region. This remains an intriguing and open question.

Simultaneously, the non-use of real intermediary mechanisms – as
opposed to the virtual ones typical of the early years of Boris
Yeltsin’s presidency – brought to a halt the aspirations of Russian
diplomacy (if it really had them) to keep the status of a “supreme

It cannot be ruled out that Russian political leaders did not
believe at the time that the newly independent states could survive
much longer than the Kremlin had anticipated or that the “younger
brothers” could soon start claiming the role of equal partners. But
the biggest miscalculation of the early 1990s consisted in the
misunderstanding of an obvious fact that the geostrategic region
uniting the Caspian littoral area and the South Caucasus was moving
center stage in the realm of Russia’s economic and political
interests and taking on the role of a centerpiece in the struggle
to optimize energy resource transportation routes.

Inconsistent actions on the part of Russian diplomats in the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and later in a series of other
conflicts, produced a situation where Russia became just one of the
equals trying to appease the warring sides.

Although efforts by international negotiators cannot be called
successful either, it is a different thing that really matters;
namely, that the sides involved in regional conflicts stopped
perceiving Moscow as the only force capable of administrating the
Caucasus. By placing the golden calf for the chosen few above other
geopolitical reasons, Russian political leaders accomplished with
their own hands a thing that the British Empire had failed to do in
the middle of the 19th century. As a result, powers located far
outside the Caucasus and their regional allies got the opportunity
to conduct policies that opposed Russia’s national interests. Apart
from the South Caucasus, this line of conduct also aimed to squeeze
Moscow out of Central Asia and the area around the Caspian Sea.

The instruments of direct impact that Russia still has in the
South Caucasus are confined to a military-political partnership
with Armenia and the presence of Russian peacekeepers (whose status
is likely to change now) in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet,
formerly too, when the two unrecognized states existed with most of
the population having Russian citizenship, the same half-baked
policy of the formal recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity
was conducted, although in reality the choice was between two
options – the recognition of these states’ independence or their
incorporation into the Russian Federation. As the creeping
integration of those territories with Russia was evident before
August 2008, Russia’s ‘peacekeeping’ role acquired a dubious

Leading Russian politicians did acknowledge the extreme risks
inherent in the use of force and thus they used tactics to freeze
the conflict and waited for their opponents to make mistakes – and
later, for mistakes by Mikheil Saakashvili, the impulsive Georgian
president. The problem is that lying in wait creates
over-dependence on situational glitches and sporadic actions. It
also gives the impression of a lack of any clear strategy or clear
understanding of the final objectives of Russian policy in the

It would make a lot of sense for Russian politicians to heed a
recommendation by Sergei Karaganov, who said: “We can’t lull
ourselves with a relatively bloodless disintegration of the Soviet
Union. We are in the middle of this disintegration, and the process
can play up any time. The current unrecognized states must get
extremely pragmatic treatment, and if reunification is impossible,
then we must work toward their recognition as states and vest them
with full responsibility. Nobody said that the Soviet Union would
necessarily break up into only fifteen countries. There may be
seventeen or even more countries in the end.”

Karaganov made these remarks shortly before the international
community recognized Kosovo and his words have proven to be
prophetic. The Kosovo precedent has added fuel to the situation
around the unrecognized states in the territory of the former
Soviet Union, while the pull/push policy ended in a heating up of
the “frozen conflict.”


There will be prominent blank spots in the history of the
so-called Five-Day War for some time, and the real winner will
emerge only in the long term when the active phase of this
confrontation winds up. The real struggle always begins once the
war is over.

Wars are won by those who accomplish their objectives and in
spite of the defeat in the global media, Russia achieved its
immediate goal – it firmly resolved for itself the right to act as
a provider of security and to help develop Abkhazia and South

One can insist on full-fledged sovereignty for the two former
autonomies; can label their status as ‘protectorates’; or can
provide other vague definitions, but the mist surrounding the
future patron of the two territories has disappeared. The coercive
postwar de facto partitioning of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from
Georgia creates new contours for the Georgian border. The two
territories will develop as part of the Caucasus regions of the
Russian Federation, and Tbilisi is unable to do anything about it.
Russia has come to stay regardless of whether the outside world
recognizes the current forms of its presence there or not.

Moscow fought the tiger when it refrained from making even
feeble attempts to formalize the status of the two republics
through international procedures. This involved huge risks, but
Russia has put all the priorities in place and has started moving
along a new path. Support for Russia’s initiatives to recognize
Abkhazia and South Ossetia was initiated virtually right in the

The Kremlin believes, however, that the game is worth the risk,
since it is not only the future of the two regions or Georgia that
is at stake. The question is whether Moscow has the right to
full-scale engagement in formulating the rules of the game that
will replace the rules that have disastrously fallen apart in
recent years. The territory of the former Soviet Union is the
centerpiece of this standoff.


What consequences could the conflict around South Ossetia have
for the Commonwealth of Independent States?

In the first place, it clearly exposes the crisis of the CIS
and, in a broader sense, of most integration structures throughout
the former Soviet Union. The problem is not limited to Georgia’s
decision to withdraw from the CIS or to anti-Russian maneuvers by
Ukrainian political leaders. CIS leaders did not rush to reconcile
the conflicting parties and distanced themselves from uttering any
clear assessments of the events in South Ossetia. The principles of
efficient relations between CIS countries, so loudly declared
previously, gathered dust on the shelf this time, as post-Soviet
state helmsmen took a non-interference stance during the first few
days of the conflict, then replaced this stance with verbal
joggling and formal bows to Russia.

Russia’s closest allies did not show any willingness to go back
on the principles of multi-vector policies and to support Moscow.
Moreover, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and, to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan
issued very dim standardized statements during the active phase of
the conflict. Officials from the Collective Security Treaty
Organization came up with the first statement several days after
the outbreak of hostilities in South Ossetia, announced by Nikolai
Bordyuzha, the organization’s general secretary. The Kremlin’s
partners in integration projects put their reactions on hold,
citing insufficient information and realizing that this conflict
would not likely have a winner if one took its purely political
aspects. And if so, why should they bear the strategically
unpromising burden of giving their unequivocal support to Russia?
CIS leaders did not play any role in putting out the active phase
of the conflict and, in all appearances, did not have any burning
desire to join the ‘peacekeeping’ efforts either.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev offered a clear-cut vision
of the CIS prospects. “The Commonwealth doesn’t have the levers or
mechanisms for interfering in conflicts like South Ossetia,”
Nazarbayev said. “When something happens, people start asking why
CIS countries keep silent. The principle of any state’s territorial
integrity is recognized by the world community. All the
member-nations of the CIS speak against separatism, and such
complicated inter-ethnic problems should be settled peacefully
through negotiations. There is no military solution to them,” he

It is worth noting that alternative integration projects – above
all GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) – were inept in
their actions, although GUAM countries – especially Azerbaijan and
Moldova – face serious separatist problems of their own.

A great deal of attention was paid to the reaction of
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, since the Nagorno-Karabakh
factor might have prompted Baku to take a better-articulated
stance, even though it might have contradicted Russia’s actions.
And yet the Azerbaijani government kept silent for ten days. Aliyev
broke his silence on August 20, saying after talks with Turkish
Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan that both Russia and Georgia
are Azerbaijan’s friends and he would like to see friendly
relations between those two countries as well.

Aliyev’s vague position is probably the most reasonable, if not
the only possible, approach. In spite of his clearly pro-Western
course, he has never triggered open confrontation with Moscow.
Understandably enough, Baku is doing this to preserve an
opportunity to revert to a normal rhythm of relations with
neighbors as restive as Russia and Georgia. And this return is
inevitable, since wars finally do end, even in the Caucasus.
Maneuvering between Russia and the West looks like the optimal
policy for the Azerbaijani leadership on the eve of a presidential
election at home.

Georgia’s actions have sharply increased the risks for major
energy projects in the Caucasus, and the risks will only grow if
the conflict drags on. At this point the losses suffered by the
Azerbaijani government and foreign companies that invest in the
exploration and production of hydrocarbon deposits stand at several
hundred million U.S. dollars. Experts with the Caspian Energy
Alliance believe that Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan will
need time – as well as considerable political and economic efforts
– to move along with the talks on a trans-Caspian export system
after the situation stabilizes in the Russian-Georgian conflict
zone. Increased economic and political risks are bound to affect
the Azerbaijani economy, which relies heavily on Georgia for oil
and gas transits across Georgian territory. Kazakhstan, with its
questionable ability to reorient itself to the Chinese market
quickly, will be affected as well.

The South Ossetia conflict produced a highly-mixed reaction in
Moldova and in the breakaway Dniester region.

Dniester-based experts – and a number of analysts in Moscow as
well – started predicting that the Kremlin would surrender this
unrecognized republic. Their reasoning suggested that Moscow would
thus demonstrate an encouraging potential embedded in the format of
a peaceful solution to conflicts surrounding breakaway

At the same time, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin came to
the opposite conclusion and made a number of tough statements in
late August. His statements contradicted his former policy of
appeasing the Kremlin. A compromise between the central and
Dniester governments is hard to achieve for reasons entirely
different from the situation in the South Caucasus. Influential
political leaders in both Moldova and in the Dniester region have
radically different business plans and that is why the Russian
leaders will have either to conduct a prolonged ‘dialogue
enforcement’ policy or cut the knot by recognizing Dniester’s
independence. The latter is barely conceivable, as it will provoke
sharp opposition from Ukraine and yet another confrontation would
be too risky for Moscow.
Kazakh political scientist Dosym Satpayev summed up the reaction of
Russia’s partners by saying: “Kazakhstan must be strong enough in
the new conditions of geopolitical turbulence in order to prevent
the brawlers from stampeding it, and it also must be flexible
enough to make their contradictions instrumental.”

This forecast was confirmed at a recent summit of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization. Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who
condemned the use of force by Mikheil Saakashvili, said: “We think
all the steps taken by Russia were subsequently aimed at defending
the residents of the much-suffering city (Tskhinvali). Russia could
either ignore the bloodshed or stop it.” This is the best that
Moscow could hope for.

One can whine about the absence of “reliable partners” – and
that is something the Russian mass media are doing – only after it
becomes clear what the forms of real partnership are in the new
conditions of an interdependent world and diversified foreign
policy risks.

Is the world really watching a crisis of the Westphalian system,
i.e., a transition from a model based on sovereign states with
their own territory and legal status to a new system, the
parameters of which are not known yet? Whatever the situation is,
there are clear-cut limits to admissible support. One can try and
reconcile Russian President Dmitry Medvedev with words and
simultaneously refrain from being one of the first countries to
recognize an independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

If relations between Russia and the U.S. deteriorate further, if
the theoretic possibility of sanctions against Russia materializes;
and if tensions between Russia and the West in general continue to
rise, the multi-vector diplomacy course espoused by most
post-Soviet leaders will run into serious problems. Playing on the
contradictions between major players is possible only when all the
participants in the game follow the same code of rules. Any
aggravation inevitably leads to chaos and to dropping clear
principles of interaction, and this may deal a blow to Tashkent,
Baku and Astana that have grown unaccustomed to force majeure

Regional powers stand to gain nothing from the further
polarization and escalation of tensions, and the presidents of both
Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan will certainly not be pleased with an
anticipated post-conflict strengthening of China’s positions in
Central Asia, as the ‘Chinese vector’ is lucrative for them only in
the same set with the Russian and Western vectors.

The situation concerning Russia and Ukraine is no less
complicated. One could expect that the leaders in Kyiv would
promulgate a strongly pro-Georgian position, especially considering
the special relationship between Victor Yushchenko and Mikheil
Saakashvili, but the Ukrainian president did not confine himself to
symbolic statements of support for Tbilisi. He exerted immediate
pressure on Russia by using the situation around the Russian Black
Sea Fleet. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a terse statement
at the beginning of the conflict saying that Kyiv could prevent the
return of Russian naval ships to the Fleet’s main base in
Sevastopol, and a bill was submitted to Ukrainian parliament to
revoke a Ukrainian-Russian agreement on the status and terms of the
Fleet’s deployment in Ukraine. Then Yushchenko sent an urgent
proposal to the Russian government to draft a bilateral agreement
on the use of Russian Black Sea Fleet units deployed in Ukraine
that would help settle problems of the kind “we saw in early

For Yushchenko, the August 8 events became an extra argument in
favor of Ukraine joining NATO project, but the deep split inside
the Ukrainian government does not make it possible to draw
far-reaching conclusions about the political aftermath of the
August crisis for future Ukrainian-Russian relations. Yulia
Tymoshenko’s cautious stance is especially illustrative in this
respect – she tried to stay away from making any assessments of the
situation in Georgia. Quite possibly, silence is golden for
Ukrainian politicians now that a presidential election looms on the
horizon, while the alignment of forces remains obscure.

Georgia’s withdrawal from the CIS should prompt Russia to weld
the ranks of its allies and to sign more binding cooperation
agreements in the format of the Collective Security Treaty
Organization and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). It also
sent a strong signal about the importance of reforming integration
agencies and stepping up their activity. The CIS has played the
role of a universal floor for negotiations in the last few years
where, for example, Vladimir Putin could have meetings with
Saakashvili, and the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan could
have talks as well.
Georgia’s withdrawal has reduced the number of countries whose
goals sharply contradict Moscow’s interests and, consequently, has
increased the chances that the CIS will turn into a pragmatic and
efficient organization. It has not been ruled out that the Georgian
demarche will finally bring it home to Russian political leaders
that Russia needs the CIS and that the destiny of the organization
depends to no small degree on cohesion in its ranks, and this
realization will naturally have an impact on the prospects for the

On the other hand, Russian expert Alexander Karavayev points out
that “the crisis in Russian-Georgian relations will give rise to
highly confused thoughts in CIS member-states about how to build
relations with Russia in the future.” Moscow has so far been unable
to present a development strategy for the territory of the former
Soviet Union. Instead, the Kremlin is mapping out a kind of
corridor of pendulum swings for the partners and is installing red
flags; and if one steps outside these flags, there will be
conflicts – first of all in the energy and security sectors.


Zbigniew Brzezinski said in a speech at the European Media Forum
in April 2008 that the current surge in tensions between Russia and
the West cannot be called a new Cold War as it lacks a crucial
element – an ideological confrontation between the superpowers.
However, U.S. President George W. Bush amended the words of the
U.S. policy guru after the events in Tskhinvali. “The Cold War is
over. The days of satellite states and spheres of influence are
behind us,” Bush said. This was a reminder for Russia that the era
of the Soviet Empire is behind us and civilized countries do not
behave like this.

And yet, it would be an overstatement to claim that ideology has
vanished from post-Soviet geopolitics. Could anyone really claim
that the differences in the definitions of Georgia do not rely on
ideologies? Russia calls Georgia an American satellite prepared to
break any norms of civilized behavior, while the U.S. describes it
as a “courageously successful democracy.” Propaganda forms
ideological junctions for further assessments. U.S. television only
portrayed the situation from the Georgian point of view during the
conflict. The U.S. administration’s ideological stance is that
America supports democracies in the CIS, but when a democracy
evolves into something directly opposite (and Georgia’s internal
policy is full of such instances), then the White House continues
supporting it as a springboard for its own advance into the region
– naturally behind the guise of “democratic” ideology. Washington’s
logic stipulates that Russian authoritarianism is unacceptable for
the world, while Georgian (and generally any pro-Western)
authoritarianism is acceptable since it represents just a
situational deviation linked to ethnic mentality and separatist

The U.S. is using the events in Georgia to put pressure on
Russia everywhere – in the South Caucasus, Ukraine, and Central
Asia. There have been calls to set up a broad anti-Russian
coalition. The idea was voiced hotheadedly by David Miliband,
Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs,
and was immediately supported by the “new Europeans.” A day later,
however, Miliband said isolating Moscow would be

Recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
produced an upsurge of indignation and panicky predictions ranging
to the possibility of a new world war (with French Foreign Minister
Bernard Kouchner saying especially remarkable things on this). And
what is the probability of the rise of a united anti-Russian

The conflict in South Ossetia has left European nations with an
uneasy choice – to show their solidarity with Tbilisi and
Washington and to shut their eyes to obvious encroachments on human
rights by Georgia, or to take a more positive stance and treat the
events without any bias. The Old Continent has once again split
into unconditional supporters of the U.S. and a more moderate camp.
Although this rhetoric can heat up, Europe has not defined its
position yet, and Russia needs to incessantly cultivate the
tendencies lucrative for itself.

Moscow needs to maintain a solid foundation of public support in
EU countries. The Soviet Union had its ‘fifth column’ in the West
even at the height of the Cold War. That column consisted of
writers, scientists and public figures who were friendly toward the
Soviet Union either out of Communist convictions, or because the
Soviet Union did not accept the rules of the game of the Western
consumerist society. And where are all those ‘friendship
associations’ and pillars of support now? Is there anyone capable
of sincerely promoting a positive image of the new Russia without
additional Gazprom investment?


To sum up, Russia has emerged as the implicit winner from the
first round of the confrontation. Georgia has made a final decision
to abandon the CIS. Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have received a
mandate of support for another twelve to eighteen months. Last but
not least, relations between Russia and the West have sunk to new
lows and, quite possibly, this is the main result of the conflict.
Former Soviet countries leaning toward the West have the right to
lay claims now to an umbrella that will protect them from the new
‘evil empire.’

Along with this, there is hardly any doubt that August 8 dealt a
severe blow to all the political and security structures in Europe.
A statement on the importance of elaborating a new system of
European security that Dmitry Medvedev made in Berlin in June 2008
has thus found a bizarre confirmation.

A mounting struggle for resources, a drifting toward a new line
of divisions and, consequently, toward a new Cold War, albeit one
taking account of the rules of global co-habitation, have brought
sizable changes to the territory of the former Soviet Union in
their wake. This territory has completely lost its former contours
and has turned into a field for an open struggle involving major
players. As interstate relations slide into total chaos and there
are no clear rules of conduct, CIS leaders – Russia’s opponents and
its allies alike – are building their political course based on a
realization that the resources they can count on in this situation
are limited.

The events of August 8 have reaffirmed the limitations of the
post-Soviet multi-vector policies as a universal recipe of survival
in this new, but far from perfect world. A question about the
strategy that Russia should follow in this situation probably has
just one answer that can be found in Dante Alighieri: “Follow your
own path, and let people talk.” It looks like all other options are
gone and what remains to be done is to choose that path.