Richard Weitz has got a good rundown right here at WPR of the recent maneuvering in the Russian-Georgian standoff over Abkhazia, including Russia’s clever gambit of offering limited normalization of relations to both Georgia and the breakaway province at the same time. The idea seemed to be to exploit an ambiguous stance of neither recognizing nor rejecting Abkhazia’s independence in order to make things as uncomfortable as possible for Georgia in its quest for NATO membership, without quite pushing the envelope to outright conflict.
But that was before Georgia claimed a Russian MiG shot down one of its aerial drones (note: cool video at link) over the Black Sea. According to Russia, the terms of the 1994 peacekeeping arrangement (monitored by the UN, the OSCE and the CIS) prevent Georgia from flying reconnaissance missions over Abkhazia airspace. Georgia, for its part, claims the attack was part of a broader campaign of Russian provocations over Georgian airspace. Either way, the whole business has gotten alarming enough to warrant its own emergency session of the UN Security Council, where, no doubt, everything will be quickly resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
All snark aside, it’s hard to see who benefits from this thing escalating from a prickly diplomatic standoff to a prickly armed standoff. It seems pretty clear that Georgia and NATO come out losers, since it’s unlikely that the same powers that blocked MAP status for Georgia less than three weeks ago will sign off on intervening on its behalf now. Russia obviously feels the need to throw its weight around, and the ability to do so, but that will come at a significant cost in terms of its dependability as a tactical and strategic partner for Europe.
While the conflict over Abkhazia has its own antecedents, this kind of Russian response was often invoked as a counter-argument to pushing through Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence earlier this year. One takeaway is that the decision to “un-freeze” Kosovo’s status is so far cost-heavy and benefit-light. Another has to do with the way in which, almost twenty years later, we’re still dealing with the fallout of the collapse of the Cold War order. More accurate would be to say that we’re still not dealing with it, because most of the sticky points have been relegated to the status of “frozen conflict” by mutual agreement, and the ones that have come unfrozen have not led to closure.
Something to think about when it comes to imagining the transition from America’s unipolar moment to whatever world order will follow it.