Russia: Forget Georgian Territorial Integrity

Russia has abandoned all pretense that they’re merely intervening on behalf of aggrieved minorities in Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia’s foreign minister declared Thursday that the world “can forget about” Georgia’s territorial integrity, and officials said Russia targeted military infrastructure and equipment — including radars and patrol boats at a Black Sea naval base and oil hub.

Russian soldiers walk in a street in Tskhinvali, in the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008. Gutted and shrapnel-scarred buildings testify to fierce street battles and heavy rocket and bomb attacks in the separatist capital of South Ossetia. But there is little evidence civilians were specifically targeted by Georgian troops, as Russia claims. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

Two American military planes delivered cargos of aid — including food and medicine — to Georgia’s wounded and refugees. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he sees no need to invoke U.S. military force in the war between Russia and Georgia. He warned, however, that U.S.-Russian relations could suffer for “years to come” if Moscow doesn’t retreat.

Russia’s president met in the Kremlin with the leaders of Georgia’s two separatist provinces — a clear sign that Moscow could absorb the regions. And the comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to come as a challenge to the United States, where President Bush has called for Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia.”

“One can forget about any talk about Georgia’s territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state,” Lavrov told reporters.

Given that Russian forces have inflicted severe damage in Georgia proper and called for President Mikhail Saakashvili to be tried for war crimes, there was little reason to doubt Russia’s expansionist motives here.  Now, there are none.

Given the precedent set in the Balkans, most notably in Kosovo, it’s not surprising that Russia feels empowered to project power in its near abroad.  And, certainly, it’s clear that the West has no appetite for military confrontation with Russia over Georgia’s “territorial integrity.”

The only questions that remain are 1) Does Russia have ambitions beyond Georgia?  2) Where are the West’s red lines?  3) Does the West have stomach even for significant economic and institutional responses, such as tossing Russia from the G8?  4) Does Russia care?

AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsk via YahooNews

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Given that Russian forces have inflicted severe damage in Georgia proper and called for President Mikhail Saakashvili to be tried for war crimes, there was little reason to doubt Russia’s expansionist motives here.

    Was there any real question that Russia’s goal here was the “liberation” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Even I didn’t dispute that. Now, if Russia attempts to annex Georgia, that’s something else, but the comment about “territorial integrity” appeared to be with respect to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, not to the whole of Georgia.

  2. 1) Does Russia have ambitions beyond Georgia?

    Is this a serious question? Perhaps a better question would be what are Russia’s ambitions beyond Georgia and, more importantly, what is their timetable?

    2) Where are the West’s red lines?

    Hmm…, define “the West.” Perhaps the Atlantic coastline of Europe is closest to correct, since no one short of that can actually do much to stop them — unless the UK or France are prepared to go nuclear. I don’t think they are.

    3) Does the West have stomach even for significant economic and institutional responses, such as tossing Russia from the G8?

    Ha, ha. Isn’t dialogue — without preconditions — the most important thing, especially in troubled times?

    4) Does Russia care?

    Of course they care. But not in the way that the other seven members of the G8 hope and expect. Being liked by the denizens of Davos is not high on their list of values.

    A lot of chickens are coming home to roost.

  3. Alex, so what about all the destruction of infrastructure and bombing of areas well outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

    At what point will you believe that Russia isn’t intent on regaining its old empire? By force, if necessary.

    Funny how obviously impotent the UN is. Hmm…, does this push the US further into the arms of China?

  4. anjin-san says:

    Funny how obviously impotent the UN is.

    The UN is impotent? What has Bush done? Nothing, thats what…

  5. Anjin-san,

    1. So you want Bush to act unilaterally now?
    2. You have no idea what Bush has or hasn’t done, aside from the news reports about directly confronting Putin, sending humanitarian aid to Georia, and working through diplomatic channels with our allies, China, etc.
    3. So, got any Viagra for the UN or do you admit they are worthless?
    4. “Stupid Bush” is not a particularly relevant or clever response to every question.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Actually I don’t expect much from Bush, there is not a lot we can do to alter the situation. Do you have inside information about what goes on at the UN? I suspect not.

    Clearly, there is not all that much to be done about this situation, it will have to play itself out. You are perfectly willing to hold the UN to account, but when I do the same for Bush you get upset.

  7. od says:

    1) Does Russia have ambitions beyond Georgia?

    I’d guess that restoring the old Soviet Union borders would more or less cover their ambitions. They’d probably like Afghanistan as well (warm water port and all), but even if there weren’t already a war there, the Russians probably aren’t dumb enough to go into there again given how badly it turned out last time.

    2) Where are the West’s red lines?

    Probably more or less where they were during the cold war, with the addition of eastern Germany now that there’s a unified Germany.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Alex, so what about all the destruction of infrastructure and bombing of areas well outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

    Well, at the risk of taking Russia at their word, I would say that this is a punitive campaign for Georgia’s attack on Russian troops in Ossetia. While there are troops in Georgia proper, for the time being they seem primarily there to prevent Georgian troops from engaging in the breakaway provinces. At present, they do not appear to be a force geared towards occupation.

    At what point will you believe that Russia isn’t intent on regaining its old empire? By force, if necessary.

    And how, exactly, are they going to retake the whole thing by force? Do you think Ukraine will roll over? Ha! They have a large, well-equipped military force (300,000 strong), a large population and terrain that it would be difficult for Russia to crack.

    The Central Asian states, like Kazakhstan, are full of mountainous regions very large Muslim populations. I don’t think that the Russians want to repeat either Afghanistan or Chechnya.

    Armenia has a very strong, well-trained military force and has very close ties to lots of European nations.

    Azerbaijan is not as strong but is, again, majority Muslim with all the risks such an invastion would entail these days.

    The Baltic states are both NATO and EU members–the odds of the US and EU ignoring a military incursion against them are pretty damn slim.

    Quite frankly, out of all of the former Republics, Georgia was pretty much the easiest target. The rest of the old Soviet empire would be very difficult for Russia to hold.

    This is not to say that Russia might not have the AMBITION to take its countries back. But their capabilities to do so just aren’t there.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    They’d probably like Afghanistan as well (warm water port and all)

    You might want to check your map again, od. Afghanistan is land-locked.

    The reason the Soviets invaded there was quite different: the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine—once communist, always communist. Basically, they wanted their puppet in place.

  10. Michael says:

    1) Does Russia have ambitions beyond Georgia?

    Of course they do, every country does. The question is how far are they willing to pursue those ambitions.

    2) Where are the West’s red lines?

    Turkey, I would think. I don’t expect Russia to make much of a westward push until they have a decent southern buffer. Poland is probably safe for a while. Now would be a good time for us to change our hostile stance on Iran.

    3) Does the West have stomach even for significant economic and institutional responses, such as tossing Russia from the G8?

    That takes stomach? Putting a blockade on Russian oil would take stomach, kicking them out of a club is petty bickering.

    4) Does Russia care?

    Of course they care, that’s the whole reason they are doing this, they want to be recognized as a great nation again.

  11. […] we don’t know, as James Joyner notes, is what this means for the future: The only questions that remain are 1) Does Russia have ambitions beyond Georgia?  2) Where are the […]

  12. Anderson says:

    Turkey, I would think.

    At this, I must break into song:

    We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do,
    We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too,
    We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true,
    The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

  13. Michael says:

    At this, I must break into song:

    Heh, I can’t believe I wasn’t reminded of that before you posted it.

  14. Michael says:

    While there are troops in Georgia proper, for the time being they seem primarily there to prevent Georgian troops from engaging in the breakaway provinces.

    I would think that occupying Gori and Poti goes beyond what is necessary to protect Ossetia and Abkazia.

  15. sam says:

    And, certainly, it’s clear that the West has no appetite for military confrontation with Russia over Georgia’s “territorial integrity.”

    As Flashman put it re another war:

    …I can tell you truthfully that the official view of the whole thing was:

    “Well, here we are, the French and ouselves, at war with Russia in order to protect Turkey. Ve-ry good. What shall we do, then? Better attack Russia, eh? H’m, yes. (Pause) Big place, ain’t it?”

  16. Well, at the risk of taking Russia at their word, I would say that this is a punitive campaign for Georgia’s attack on Russian troops in Ossetia. While there are troops in Georgia proper, for the time being they seem primarily there to prevent Georgian troops from engaging in the breakaway provinces. At present, they do not appear to be a force geared towards occupation.

    Wow. Unlike you, I have trouble seeing this as a one-off. That Russia will get the territory it wants, the Georgian government will be deposed and then everything will just go back to normal.

    But who said this was about occupation? I thought it was a heavily mailed fist smashing an convenient target as a warning that further dalliances with NATO and closer links to the West by will not be tolerated — and this is just the first shot across the bow.

    IMHO, the restoration of an empire is the goal. Note, not the empire, but an empire. Force comes in many forms, and they can achieve this goal without having to march into every former republic or independent nation. In fact, I think one can argue that the last thing they would want to do is spend resources occupying anything. Much easier to make a few examples and lay waste to some troublesome regions to cow everyone else. Hmmm…, maybe it isn’t the old republics this is aimed at after all…

  17. DC Loser says:

    The Ayatollahs must be breathing a lot easier since all this angst about Georgia takes them off the front pages and presumably off the target list for the foreseeable future. How can we engage in the renewed cold war and a hot war against Iran at the same time?

  18. […] Stratfor report also goes a long way toward answering the four questions asked by James Joyner which I mentioned earlier today: The war in Georgia, therefore, is Russia’s public return to great […]

  19. One more thought as I read about a column of 100 more Russian tanks and armored vehicles heading towards Gori, your comment seems to say be an apology for the Russians kind of along the lines of “how dare those Georgians attack us because we invaded their country.”

    Maybe there’s some irony or sarcasm I’m missing.

  20. DC Loser says:

    I have to disagree about Russia wanting to reconstitute the Empire. One of the things the Russian nationalists are happy about the dissolution of the USSR was that they got rid of all those non-slavic minorities they had to pretend to be fraternal with during the old days. The current Russian government don’t want to bother dealing with these people as equal citizens, and allow them to share in Russia’s natural resource wealth. I don’t see them absorbing Georgia, but content to leave it politically and economically weak for the foreseeable future.

  21. Anderson says:

    Russia doesn’t care about territorial expansion – why bother? Hegemony works just fine.

    “Self-determination” for ethnic minorities on Russia’s borders would be a great Putin Doctrine.

    It keeps the neighbors fragmented and weak. Obviously, a Georgia can’t defend itself. How much less a South Ossetia?

    In many respects, this little war has been Russia’s invasion of Grenada. Shows who’s boss in the neighborhood, makes the Russian people feel tough again …

    It’s “Morning in Russia.”

  22. od says:

    You might want to check your map again, od. Afghanistan is land-locked.

    The reason the Soviets invaded there was quite different: the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine—once communist, always communist. Basically, they wanted their puppet in place.

    Oops, you’re right of course. Not sure what I was thinking (or perhaps “if”).

  23. Fence says:

    Their territorial expansion doesn’t necessarily = Cold War for us. Does their control of Ossetia make any more difference to us than whether they control Siberia — which they already do to no American’s apparent consternation? Sure, their methods are savage, and I sure wouldn’t want to be under their thumb. But supposedly a majority of Ossetians actually wanted that.

  24. Bootlegger says:

    Damned odd how the Russians thew our reasons for invading Iraq, NATO’s intervention in the Balkans, and even Israel’s incursion into Lebanon, right back into our collective faces.

    If Georgia were anything close to a functional democracy or if they were the least bit innocent in provoking the Bear I could agree that “this is different”, but it isn’t a functional democracy and the Georgians had a hand in provoking the hammer. To the Russians, this is no different than Iraq, Balkans and Lebanon.

    Of course this is just an excuse on their part to push back against rising US influence so close to their borders. But whoever thought someone else would claim the same moral authority that we did?