Mapping the 2008 Russo-Georgian War

By: Mojahid Hussain (MA International Conflict Analysis)

In this blog post, I will be applying Paul Wehr’s conflict mapping guide in order to map the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.  Through understanding this, I will then begin to examine whether the conflict resolution outcome that occurred was reflective of this conflict map. Finally I will critically analyze the drawbacks of the conflict mapping, focusing on the static representation, over-simplification and ontological issues of utilizing Wehr’s conflict mapping.

Section A: Background

Georgia is located within the South Caucasus and is bordered by Russian, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It gained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While much of country is dominated by ethnic Georgians, the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia who identify more so with a Russian heritage (Cohen & Hamilton, 2011). As a result of these ethnic tensions, the Georgia had a complete breakdown in ethnic relations that led to a civil war from 1991 to 1993 that led to an unresolved tension where Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been in de facto control of the respective ethnic groups from Georgia but still under their control from the central administration (Nichol, 2009).

The tensions remained within the following years following a peace agreement that included a ceasefire. During 2008, tensions flared up between South Ossetia and Georgia where both claimed that the other side had violated the ceasefire (Cohen & Hamilton, 2011). Following this, Russian forces quickly flooded the region, claiming South Ossetia and occupying many other Georgian cities in the guise of Humanitarian intervention (Cohen & Hamilton, 2011). This war lasted only five days, ending in a South Ossetia and Abkhazia declaring independence from Georgia, Russia recognizing their independence and much of the world refusing to legitimize these claims (Nichol, 2009).

There are two primary actors within this conflict, Georgia and Russia. As the war was based on South Ossetia, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are considered to be primary actors within this conflict. However it questionable due to their minimal role within the conflict and lack of power in comparison to the primary actors. This is observable during the six point negotiation, where representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia were absent with no representation. However, in regards to Wehr’s criteria, they are far too involved to be considered a secondary actor or a tertiary actor (Ramsbottom, Miall, & Woodhouse, 2016). However France, a Tertiary actor, had greater power within the conflict resolution period than either of these two. Which highlights the difficulty and vagueness of applying strict criteria due to the numerous power asymmetries.

The main conflict issue that can be identified from a “neutral stance” would be considered to be the issue of South Ossetia’s independence and the status of the state as either a sovereign state or a region belonging to Georgia. Other theorists may argue that the conflict stemmed from Russia’s inherent push for growing desire for regional hegemony from a realist stance (Wilson, 2017).

Section B: Analysis

The behaviour of the both main parties were flawed from the beginning due to the numerous historical, social, cultural and ethnic reasons. Wehr’s conflict mapping provides a suitable method in order to analyses the relevant information and context needed in order to intervene with a conflict (Ramsbottom, Miall, & Woodhouse, 2016). By following this criteria, we can clearly observe the embedded historical tensions between both countries, as well as with South Ossetia.  In recent history prior to 2008, Russia actions towards Georgian had always been considered to be provocative, with a legitimate fear from Georgian leadership that Russia would inevitably invade (George, 2009). US Sources indicate that Russia had been planning the 2008 invasion from April, with a major focus on structural military changes that put a rapid offensive force on the border with South Ossetia (Welt, 2018). However, there was no legitimate attempt from the Georgian leadership to repair relations with South Ossetia and Abkhazia and instead took more aggressive measures with moving ethnic Georgians into this region and in addition, consistently ignored grievances from Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Cheterian, 2009).

Wehr’s conflict mapping also includes a pathway to examine elites within the main parties (Ramsbottom, Miall, & Woodhouse, 2016), thus identifying a crucial level of analysis that demonstrates the central agency of powerful leaders within conflict, thus being able to expand upon basic state centric understandings of conflict. Through this critical lenses, we can trace many of the conflict decisions of the region to individuals, more specifically to the main leaders of Russia and Georgia. Personal rule and reputation was a major aspect of Russian and Caucasus domestic politics (Vendil Pallin & Westerlund, 2009), therefore much of the decision making, especially in foreign policy, stems from a desire to maintain a dominant position rather than decision making and conflict resolution based on a legitimacy of a legal rational political order but more from a traditional and charismatic political order that is grounded in top down decision making.

The Russo-Georgian war held numerous implications that can be categorized in three overarching themes thanks to Wehr, allowing a simple but comprehensive method to analyze the impact that the conflict has had. These are Social/State (Domestic), Regional and International (Ramsbottom, Miall, & Woodhouse, 2016). The two most notable shifts can be observed lies in the regional and Social/state areas.

The regional implications saw a major increase in Russian regional power and helped to create ripples in the international order. The demonstration during 2008 saw that Russia had finally overcome the decline of the Soviet Union and reasserted its military dominance in the region (Wilson, 2017). The conflict itself renewed greater implications for many NATO states and former soviet bloc countries due to the alarm of a sudden Russian invasion (Vendil Pallin & Westerlund, 2009). Thus the Russo-Georgian war highlights a major turning point in regional affairs. However, while Wehr allows us to observe this context in relation to the conflict, it cannot be done so without analyzing through another theoretical perspective to explain the actions of why the parties acted in the way they did.

Domestically, For Georgia, the conflict led to major issues surrounding relocation of over 100,000 ethnic Georgians from both regions and a complete rejection of South Ossetia and Abkhazia independence vote (Council, 2009). It led to greater calls for closer ties to NATO and the West, which was reciprocated (Vendil Pallin & Westerlund, 2009). Causing greater fallout between an already weak relationship between Georgia and Russia (Nichol, 2009). This exacerbated ethnic tensions and undoubtedly hurt the relations between numerous ethnic groups. Especially for the ethnic Georgians due to the reminiscent of the Ethnic cleaning of Georgians in the past, thus amplifying the talks over grievance (George, 2009).

Aforementioned, the 2008 conflict created major ripples within the International arena. Such an aggressive act by Russia was perceived by the West, especially the US and NATO, as an act of asserting dominance and regaining lost hegemonic powers from the fall of the Soviet Union (Wilson, 2017). The establishment of Russian bases within Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not help to refute these claims, seeing fast military expansion of the Russian Military (Nichol, 2009). Therefore creating more pathways of contention within Russian and NATO relations. However, this element has helped to identify a crucial area of conflict that needs to be addressed, highlighting the strength of conflict mapping.

The conflict resolution came as a result of the international mediation from the French presidency of the European Union (Council, 2009). The final agreement was a six point plan that resembled and focused on a ceasefire and cessation of hostility. However, I will argue that the Peace agreement did not address the conflict issues that is identified within this conflict mapping. The six points focus primarily on a commitment to renounce the use of force, the withdrawal of Russian forces to their “lines of deployment”, the withdrawal of Georgian forces to their respective bases, free access of Humanitarian aid, immediate cessation of hostilities and an international talk about stability and security in the region (Council, 2009).

The peace agreement does not build upon the conflict issues that were identified between Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As a result this peace agreement has done very little too actually resolve the conflict at its core issues. Due to the focus on stopping Military hostility and vague goals, it neglects repairing the ethnic tension and as a result, there have been consistent breaches of the agreement with no actual method of accountability for both sides (Watch, 2009). The peace agreement was also done without the presence of representation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, therefore creating further doubt on such a weak agreement (Council, 2009).

The vagueness of the points have been shown not to address the issue of whether South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to Georgia or are independent states (Cohen & Hamilton, 2011). Russia has taken advantage of this vagueness and built several bases on the two respective territories, violating the spirit of the agreement. Since the Russian leadership have argued that due to bi-lateral agreements, they were requested to keep their military past the lines of deployment since it was a separate issue (Council, 2009).

While conflict mapping is extremely useful in provide a basic and quick snapshot of the conflict and can be extremely useful for conflict resolution efforts, there are three major flaws that can be identified when using Wehr’s conflict mapping for the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. These can be summed up in three overarching oversights. The first being the static representation, secondly the contradiction between claiming simplicity and including “difficult to quantify” criteria. Finally the crucial element of avoiding the ontological debate surrounding the assumption of Interests

The strongest oversight of Wehr’s conflict mapping is its overreliance and vague criteria on identifying conflict issues and interests in order to provide a basis for a suitable conflict resolution attempt. The issue with identifying conflict issues/ interests is that the area is matter of ontological debate. It would be presumptuous of a researcher to be able to accurately predict the true interests of several leaders without explicit confirmation (Hay, 2002). Not to mention that certain leaders may not announce their true interests, which means that such interests are assumed and thus should not be considered to be a concrete foundation to build possible agreements upon (Ramsbottom, Miall, & Woodhouse, 2016). The focus on power as a material criteria has contributed to this oversight, ignoring the power asymmetries and power of Russia’s ability to persuade the interests of other parties to suit themselves.

The ontological issue surrounding Conflict issues would be that they would rely upon the perception of different parties involved. Russia’s official issue in the conflict was to protect the civilians of South Ossetia while, Georgia would argue that their issue is restoring order within its own region. These two competing issues drastically changes the conflict resolution method and by choosing one or the other, it will often display the bias of the academics within the process of the conflict resolution. For example, an international mediator must remain neutral and seek to solve the main conflict issue for which the conflict started and seek a process that allows the parties themselves to understand their own issues and resolve them in their own way (Ramsbottom, Miall, & Woodhouse, 2016). For example, the USA would only maintain a negative view of the conflict and assume the worst of Russian Issues and therefore would be biased within any resolution.

Secondly, while Wehr mentions power symmetries/asymmetries in his criteria, there is a lack of an underpinning International relations theory that can help address these. A realist standpoint would argue that as a result of the wide imbalance of power asymmetries it would result in unfair negotiations unless a power stronger than both was able to negotiate a fair agreement (Hay, 2002). This is observable in the real world, where Russia has often ignored and twisted the spirit of the peace agreement to suit themselves. For evidence, Russia having greater power throughout the process since the French mediators had to convince the Georgians to accept many of the points (Council, 2009).

Section C: Conclusion

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the value of Conflict mapping is crucial in understanding a conflict. It succeeded in providing a view of the conflict and covered many important aspects, while let down the some drawbacks and the fact that the peace agreement did not appear to resolve any of the issues.

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