The Crimea Conflict and the Lessons from Georgia

With its recent annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the Russian Federation has amazed the international community once again.  The permanent member of United Nations Security Council, which should logically preserve international law protecting national sovereignty, impudently violated and annexed a sovereign country’s territory. A majority of international leaders have condemned Russia for its actions. However, hardly anyone realizes that if the international community had responded properly to Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, Russian leaders might not have been “brave” enough to spearhead their country’s invasion in Ukraine.
In a 2005 speech, Vladimir Putin said, “We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major political disaster of the century.” Soon enough, in August 2008, when all the international leaders were participating in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics, Russian forces entered Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, allegedly to mediate the ongoing conflict between Georgians and Ossetian separatists. But during the ensuing battles in South Ossetia between Russian and Georgian troops, Russian forces stationed in the distant, western breakaway region of Abkhazia moved deeper into Georgian territory.  The military temporarily occupied four cities in western Georgia, and the Russian air force also bombed the capital Tbilisi.  Clearly, this action had nothing to do with defending the peace in South Ossetia. It was clear that Russia was not a peacemaker. As a result of the military tensions, the overwhelming majority of the international community regarded Russia’s presence in Georgia’s two breakaway regions as an occupation, while Russia declared both Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent countries and continues stationing its forces on 20 percent of Georgia’s land even today.
Although Russia was accused of invading and occupying Georgia, Russia never paid for its actions. In other words, as Daniel Fata, who was the senior Pentagon official on duty supporting the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates during the Russo-Georgian conflict, puts it, Vladimir Putin was “never punished by the international community.” For example, the Georgian government was initially firm in blocking Russia’s World Trade Organization membership aspiration after conflict, and Russia needed a unanimous approval from all organization members in order to be a part of the alliance. Surprisingly, in 2011, Georgia voted with other 152 members of the WTO to grant membership to Russia, probably because it faced international pressure to do so. Admittedly, easier trade between Russia and the rest of the world entails significant amount of benefits for a global economy. However, since Russia was never really punished for its intervention in Georgia and it was accepted into the WTO by an occupied country even after neglecting its sovereignty, it could continue its aggressions toward its neighbors. Simply put, Russia’s violation of international law was not followed by severe consequences. And after six years, we all have seen the result of not punishing Russia in time—Russia annexed a part of Ukraine.
Fortunately, the world, it seems, has learned its mistakes and started taking necessary steps against continuous Russian aggressions. Recently, the G7 suspended Russia’s membership, and the world’s major economies are expected to discuss further economic sanctions. Consequently, Russia will need to realize that it cannot win the economic war against the majority of the world, regardless of whether many European countries depend on Russia’s natural resources. Although Russia has this leverage, it is also heavily dependent on an exchange of its resources and the revenues gained from European use of its natural gas. Russia will get only negative net benefits out of its undertakings in the long run, because Europe actively works on alleviating its energy dependence on Russia.
However, if the world’s weaker response to Russian intervention in Georgia did not create the illusion that there would be no serious consequences for invading a sovereign country’s territory, we would probably have prevented the annexation of Crimea. Russian leaders would have already realized that no country is able to violate an international law without incurring appropriate costs. However, as Anthony de Saint-Exupery once observed, “The time for action is now. It’s never late to do something.” The international community is still able to help both Ukrainian and Georgian people. But if it procrastinates, Russia will keep refusing to comply with international law. It is necessary for the world to act now.
Possible Actions
To act now, however, is easier to recommend than to execute. As a Georgian citizen and a passionate supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty myself, I would love both Georgia’s and Ukraine’s issues to be solved as soon as possible, even if that means that the international community needs to flex its muscles more persistently. Nevertheless, I realize that such kind of attitude has rarely produced positive results. It would be unreasonable to ask Western powers to get involved in a military clash with Russian Federation. But, one may ask, what should the international community do if Russia does not step back or give up pursuing thoughtless politics?
As I have mentioned earlier, economic sanctions should be a good response to the recent crisis. Economic alienation of Russia from its major trade partners will have deleterious effects on its economy. It was unimaginable that the Soviet Union would collapse, but because of a very weak economy, the USSR could not survive, even though Russian military was prepared to prevent member republics from leaving the union. That being said, Russia might very well be forced to give up its aggressive politics in the face of wise and firm economic sanctions.
These sanctions will not be costless to European countries, which drastically need to put more effort into diversifying their energy demand and lessening the dependence on Russian natural resources. In particular, Russia too can impose sanctions against European countries and limit the supply of its natural gas. Fortunately, after acquiring alternative ways to get energy from countries other than Russia in years to come, Europe will have more leverage to firmly oppose Russia’s will to harass both developed and developing democracies. Consequently, in the long run, Russia will be discouraged to neglect an international law, and it will not be able to deter either Ukraine or Georgia in their aspirations to build up democratic states.
I am afraid that if Ukraine and Georgia do not manage to successfully continue their path to join NATO and EU, Russia will be given a signal that it can finish its job by conquering Kiev and Tbilisi. And who will be the next target?
Image Credit: Wikipedia

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