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Crimea Crisis: Three Lessons From the Caucasus

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As Crimea threatens to turn into a dangerous new European flash point, many are drawing parallels with the 2008 war in Georgia.

Needless to say, there are obvious differences. Crimea is bigger and Russia’s stake there is bigger.

It is also naturally less combustible. Many people on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast do not feel “Ukrainian” or “Russian” but both. It is no accident that Crimea avoided meltdown and conflict in the early 1990s when many predicted it. Indeed, one of the biggest protests I recall, when working in Moscow in that period, came in 1995 when Ukrainian television dubbed Santa Barbara into Ukrainian, rather than Russian.

But a crisis can take a life of its own. Who could have anticipated two weeks ago that 100 people would die in Kiev?

De Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, specializing primarily in the South Caucasus region comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and their breakaway territories as well as the wider Black Sea region.
Thomas de Waal
Senior Associate
Russia and Eurasia Program
More from this author...
Some kind of political crisis in Crimea looks almost inevitable. At the moment the priority has to be stop having a military one as well. The conflicts in the Caucasus, including the 2008 war, were all avoidable. Here are three lessons from how that unfortunate conflict began:

Clients Have Their Own Agenda

The armed men trying to take over bits of Crimea may be acting on direct orders from Russia, they may not be, or the answer may be somewhere in the middle.

In any case, some local politicians in Crimea are working to a local agenda that is much narrower than that of Moscow. Quite possibly this is to provoke a reaction from Kiev in order to seek Russian intervention.

Many people still use the phrase “Russia invaded Georgia” in August 2008. That was in fact only the last of a whole sequence of actions. South Ossetians and Georgians were involved in local skirmishes on the ground. The Russian 58th Army was on standby. A panicky Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili attacked first and the Russian army responded a few hours later, soon escalating this into a broader brutal attack on Georgia as a whole.

In the compelling BBC documentary about the 2008 war, both U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin volunteered that they had talked to each other and to their friends in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali respectively, right on the eve of fighting, and believed the situation was under control.

But the war happened anyway. One figure who did not get much attention at the time but may have played a fateful role was South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, who had a lot of incentives to want the Russians to dig him out of a hole. So it is worth asking, “Will someone try to play Kokoity in Crimea?” and whether there are forces on the other side who also want a fight and working out how to rein in these actors.

Take the Locals Seriously

This is about ordinary people, not the politicians. In 2008, South Ossetians were sadly overlooked as agents in their own story. Likewise, Crimean Russians are not mere stooges of the Kremlin and have their own story to tell. It threads a tale from Nazi occupation in World War II to Nikita Khruschev’s alleged betrayal to serial disappointment with governments in Kiev and fears about “Ukrainization.”

This is a one-sided narrative. But it is one that the government in Kiev needs to take on board and respond to with inclusive messages from its side—preferably delivered in the Russian language.

Watch the Base

Some Western commentators are already arguing that the West needs to make a pre-emptive response to a hypothetical threat—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supposed plans to annex Crimea and Ukraine. I have again read that Putin wants to re-create the USSR, using a quotation that I and others have pointed out does not actually imply that.

Any Russian escalation deserves a strong response from the West. But if you read what Putin is actually saying he is being more equivocal. He is ruthless, but he is not Sauron in Lord of the Rings. He almost certainly wants the government in Kiev to fail, but he is also hosting the G8 summit in Sochi in June.

What is Russia’s strategic game in Crimea? In South Ossetia in 2008 what made it absolutely certain that Moscow would intervene militarily was the presence of Russian peacekeepers on the ground. (Two years later, the Russians did not intervene in Osh in Kyrgyzstan, even when there were calls for them to do so.)

Russia has one overwhelming strategic asset in Crimea: the Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol. My guess is that Putin’s main goal in Crimea is to maintain that base at all costs.


Comments (15)

  • Rich Kauz
    What’s the role of the Crimean Tartars in this?
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  • Vato
    Dear Thomas de Waal,

    I cannot agree when you say Russia did not invade Georgia. Since South Ossetia is part of Georgia and when Russia invades Georgian Troops in South Ossetia that means Russia invades Georgia.
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  • David Kramer
    Hey, who warned about this happening in 2008? Oh yeah, that was SARAH PALIN, right again!
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    • John Evans replies...
      Sad to see all the invective and misinformation in these comments. Tom is absolutely right about the fact that local actors have their own agendas that outsiders frequently fail to understand.   And political systems of all sizes have their own dynamics; they are rarely dominated by one man's ideas. As for David's point about Sarah Palin, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  • Izkiel
    Let me guess: Thomas de Waal is on Putin's payroll...
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  • Tamara
    This is how bribed guy writes about Russia! Interesting, how much was paid for this pro-Putin story?
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  • Cipollino
    Don't be stupid, Mr de Waal. Russia supplied weapons to South Ossetians and Abkhaz. Russia created Kokoity. It is now supplying weapons to Crimean Russians. The intention is quite clear. Anyone can see it except blind people like you or probably useful idiots like you. Such people helped Stalin consolidate his power. You seem to be doing the same now. Don't be a useful idiot. Please calm down and keep you ideas for yourself. Disappear from newspaper pages and TV screens together with your harmful "ideas" that are of no use to Russians, Georgians, Ossetians or Crimeans. A smart man would rather tell Putin to protect the rights of his own people rather than those of bandits in other countries.
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  • Nina Ivanishvili
    Dear Thomas!
    "A panicky Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili attacked first and the Russian army responded a few hours later."
    - Looks like you forgot or you just do not know that "A panicky Georgian leader" did not attack Russia, he "attacked" South Ossetia, a separatist Georgian region, still recognized by the western community as Georgia. It was Russia who attacked Georgia from three sides! And probably you also forgot that nobody "attacked " Russia when it was fighting Chechen separatist on its territory in two full-fledged wars. Russia has its own different "approaches" to different territories, of course. And in every "approach" one can find similarities and differences, though one thing does not change: big brother imperial syndrome is always there...   
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  • SOS
    For your information, Russia started war in Georgia, before 08.08. every day, Russian "Peacekeepers" were killing Georians and trying to provocate war. first wach film " Russian Lessons" made by Russian Jurnalists. So you think Russians have rights to invide to the therritory of enother counrty? and make decisions what is better for that country or people without asking them? How much Russia is paying you for that kind of BLYA BLYA???
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  • Amikusha
    Dear sir, you and most westerners assume that Putin is a rational human being and Russia is a country like any other. Well, as it is becoming apparent neither of these facts is true. Putin is a cannibal with narcissistic tendencies and Russia, herself falling apart politically and economically, is "valliantly" saving all scum around her: Bashar al Assad, General Sissi, Kokoyti and now Janukovich. When will Europe and the rest of the world wake up?
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  • Maka
    I mean, SERIOUSLY??
    Suppose It was only Georgian and Ossetian conflict and Russia wanted to defend defenceless Ossetians. What was Russia doing in Gori, Poti, Tbilisi and all over Georgia? We did see bombs, it was not staged.
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  • ana
    dear Mr. De Wall, if it is still any secret to any one, we all know who pays your payroll
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  • Kakha Gogolashvili, GFSIS
    Dear Tom, If the only aim of Putin were "keeping the naval base at all cost" in Sevastopol, he would have supported new Ukrainian government and secured prolongation of the treaty with another 50 years. As regards to the the August 8 war in Georgia, Russia really "invaded" the country in breach of international law (what does it mean? - "Georgia moved and Russia responded"). "Georgia moved" (even if first) inside of Georgia and Russia responded (even if this is true) by moving to a sovereign country, without any legal right on that (alleged attack of Georgian troops on Russian basis in SO has never been proved).
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  • Teimuraz Papaskiri
    Mr. De Waal, are you still serious that it was Georgia who attacked Russia? I cannot believe that there will be anyone who will believe to you after Crimea. There are just two explanations to your statement: 1. you are wrong (this is definitely true) because you simply cannot analyze the subject; 2. you are bribed by Russia or her satellites (this is my personal opinion which is supported by some people here too). Thanks God, now everyone sees, who you are!!!
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  • Stephen Keat
    Your point that both U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin thought the situation was under control "but the war happened anyway," strikes me as a critical one. Developments in Ukraine may unfold in unexpected ways that none of the major actors intend.   
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