Georgia: when the smoke clears

The international response to events in Georgia is still at the declaratory stage, and some analysts predict a long struggle. It’s not a good sign when the Finns are talking about “fully-fledged war” (the Finns don’t have a lot of luck: the had the EU presidency during the Lebanon war in 2006, and now they’re chairing the OSCE).

But a couple of things seem clear already. Firstly, this war is not going to end the way the Georgians presumably wanted: a lightning move by their forces creating a fait accompli in South Ossetia that Russia would have to accept. Russia has already nixed that, so Georgia is in a position where it cannot achieve its initial war aim. (I am at a loss to imagine how the Georgians ever thought they could achieve it, as doing so would have required an element of surprise that they couldn’t pull off, but whatever). Logically, it should pull back and look for a deal to consolidate some gains, but that’s not what tends to happen in the cases…

The second thing that’s pretty clear is that South Ossetia is in an unholy mess. As Jules points out, it’s tiny, and there are increasingly credible reports of a death toll in the hundreds – the Ossetes are claiming 1000+. Out of a population of 60,000. Media images imply that physical destruction has been significant. And if the Georgians decide to try to slug it out with the Russians, not only in Ossetia but in Abkhazia and Georgia proper, this damage is going to spread and intensify.

(NB: the really scary scenario is that the Georgians will now decide that their best hope of winning global sympathy, or even direct military aid, is to fall back into their own territory and get lots of CNN coverage of their heroic resistance. Logically, the Russians should refuse to play along, but again, I don’t trust in that).

What seems probable is that, after an indeterminate period of violence, we will end up with a situation in which South Ossetia is under full or partial Russian control, and a wreck. If there was a ceasefire, two basic options would be on the table. Russia could declare South Ossetia a separate state, or even part of Russia – the West would not recognize this, and the Russians would have to handle clearing up the wreckage, as they did in Chechnya. If the outcome is less clear-cut, however, it may be necessary for the international community to (i) patrol a ceasefire line and (ii) pick up a least part of the reconstruction burden.

As far as the peacekeeping part goes, I rather doubt we’ll return to the status quo ante: a dysfunctional mixed force of Russians, Georgians and Ossetes doing joint patrols, monitored by OSCE military observers. The likely alternatives are (i) a light Ceasefire Observation Mission, which could well be created out of the OSCE presence, or by enlarging the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, which currently only watches the Abkhazia situation and (ii) a heavier interpositional military mission, along the lines of the UN forces in Cyprus and the Golan Heights, though probably not on the scale of that in Lebanon. I think we can rule out any larger civilian-military peacebuilding mission – the reconstruction will stay separate.

If you were going for the interpositional military option, who’d do it? NATO is out of the question, and the OSCE doesn’t do military forces beyond the unarmed observer level. That leaves (i) the EU (suggested by the Estonians, but might look too like NATO in Disguise to the Russians), (ii) the UN (not impossible, although if we’re talking about European troops, they’ll want a special command structure that reduces their reliance on UNHQ, as they have in Lebanon) or (iii) an ad hoc multinational force. In all cases, I’d expect the bulk of the force to be European. The obvious lead country is Germany: it has a history of trying to sort out the Caucasus, and it’s got some troops to spare, unlike France and the UK…

In theory, I’d prefer a force made up of higher-end Latin Americans (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) as they’re intelligent peacekeepers and relatively impartial – the problem for any European force, whatever its flag, is that it’ll be pulled in all directions by the EU’s splits over Russia policy. But the LAs are in Haiti, and I don’t think that EU governments would accept such a slight to their collective ego.

I expect to be proved wrong by events. It will all look different in the morning.