The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are currently far from the front lines of the standoff between Russia and the West. After Moscow recognized the independence of Georgia’s two breakaway regions on August 26, 2008, a new status quo emerged in the South Caucasus: Abkhazia and South Ossetia came into Russia’s sphere of influence, while “core Georgia” (as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described it) made major strides toward integration into the EU and NATO. Tbilisi received an “enhanced cooperation” package from NATO and signed an association agreement with the EU, and Georgian citizens were granted visa-free entry to the Schengen zone. 

Talks have been underway between representatives of Georgia and the two partially recognized republics since October 2008 within the framework of the Geneva International Discussions. Diplomats from the United States, the EU, and Russia, as well as officials from the UN and the OSCE, are also taking part in the consultations.

However, they have not achieved a diplomatic breakthrough in this time, and are highly unlikely to do so in the near future. Neither Tbilisi nor its supporters in Washington and Brussels will back down from the principle of Georgia’s territorial integrity, whereas Moscow views the declaration of independence by Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be part of the new geopolitical reality in Eurasia that everyone will have to accept sooner or later. This explains the unwillingness of the sides to sign legally binding commitments not to use force.

The Russian delegation insists that the only parties to the conflict are Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Tbilisi counters that Moscow is not simply an observer and participant in the talks, but also a key player in the South Caucasus that could offer crucial guarantees on the non-use of force—among other reasons, because Russia provided military support to Tskhinvali and Sukhumi in August 2008, and then served as a guarantor of their socioeconomic recovery and security after recognizing their independence.

Having asserted its military and political dominance in the two former autonomous regions of Georgia, Russia is not, however, attempting to expand its sphere of influence into “core Georgia.” Likewise, the United States and its allies are not trying to shift the balance in their own favor, despite continuing to emphasize their adherence to the principle of restoring Georgia’s violated territorial integrity.

It is too early to write these conflicts off as completely and irreversibly frozen. The fact that no one is currently trying to dispute the status quo does not mean that the West approves of it. Many Western politicians, diplomats, and experts view the Kremlin’s decision to lend military support to Abkhazia and South Ossetia and then recognize their independence as an overture to the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. 

One could argue that such connections are spurious, but that doesn’t change the way Western officials perceive the situation. They don’t see the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as the result of complex ethnic and national self-identification in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, in which each side has some valid arguments but also bears some responsibility for the violence. They view the conflicts as Russia’s resurgence as a Eurasian hegemon, which does not suit their own perceptions of how the post-Soviet space should evolve.

The absence of diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia, together with the standoff between Russia and the West in the South Caucasus, means that a new crisis cannot be ruled out. The idea that Georgia is unlikely to join NATO often comes up during expert discussions of the South Caucasus. True, the alliance’s charter does not allow a country that has unresolved territorial conflicts and disputes with its neighbors to join. However, there is nothing to prevent Washington and Tbilisi from building up bilateral military and political cooperation. This model of relations has been used many times in the past when for any reason a U.S. partner could not enter the transatlantic alliance. 

If NATO were to go ahead and admit Georgia, and if the Kremlin decided that political expediency and external circumstances outweigh the internal logic of the South Caucasus conflicts, Moscow could bring South Ossetia into the Russian Federation. After all, the idea of uniting with the “fraternal” Russian republic of North Ossetia is very popular in South Ossetia. Over the past three years, South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov has run successful campaigns—first for parliament and then for the presidency—using slogans of such reunification. 

This scenario could also be set in motion by rapid escalation in military and political cooperation between Tbilisi and Washington, for example, if U.S. military bases or forces appeared in the immediate vicinity of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders. The result could be increased sanctions and a revival of revisionism. 

However, Russia and the West have a choice in the South Caucasus. They can either treat the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as being isolated from other conflicts—such as those in the Donbas and in Transdniestria—or they can use it as an additional argument in their overall confrontation. Moscow and Washington have experience in both selective partnership (such as in the unstable frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus) and selective agreement to disagree. 

The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are an example of the latter model, in which adversaries have diametrically opposite objectives, but don’t want to exacerbate a conflict and entangle it with the overall negative context of bilateral relations. In other words, they are trying to manage the new status quo. This will not result in a breakthrough or real progress, but at least it will prevent a complete security collapse in the currently cooled hot spots.

The most we can expect today from the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is not their complete resolution, but a decrease in their dependence on external factors and on the general negativity in relations between Russia and the West. Russia and Georgia must have their own agenda that is separate from the existing unresolved disputes. This agenda could include promoting security in the North Caucasus or containing the threat of jihadi extremism. In addition, although Tbilisi does not advertise this, it is clearly interested in reducing its dependence on Ankara and Baku. 

Destabilization in the Middle East forces the nations of the South Caucasus to be more pragmatic about Moscow’s actions and to not count blithely on NATO assistance—particularly since this assistance does not always come, as evidenced by the events of August 2008. However, despite the ceaseless confrontation, Russia and the West are not inciting discord in the South Caucasus, and they are withholding their “final arguments” until the last, which allows for some cautious optimism.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Sergei Markedonov