Russia has frequently found itself at odds with the European Union over their shared neighborhood. This conflict is most apparent in areas where, through military, political, and juridical means, Russia has constructed parallel realities to those accepted by Europe. These parallel realities in Crimea, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are considered illegal by EU member states. The diametrically differing views on these areas held by Russia and Europe are irreconcilable. But is there space for bridging the gaps between these realities to bring more security and predictability to people who are stranded in these gray zones?

Cleaving Reality

Consider Georgia. Its brief war with Russia in early August 2008 was halted through an agreement under the aegis of the French EU presidency. The six-point accord mediated by then president Nicolas Sarkozy in Tbilisi and Moscow postulated an immediate ceasefire, the non-use of force, the withdrawal of the Russian and Georgian troops to ex-ante positions, and the opening of international discussions on the modalities of security and stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The EU took on the role of lead mediator (alongside the UN and the OSCE as co-chairs) in the Geneva International Discussions (GID), designed to operationalize the key elements of the agreement and move forward from the ceasefire to a lasting peace deal.

But the mediation has been hamstrung from the onset. Its objectives became infinitely more complex as Russia proceeded to recognize both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, a move that even its closest post-Soviet allies, let alone the EU countries, refused to follow. 

Over the course of 2008, Russia used its formal and informal veto powers to end the peacekeeping mandates of the UN in Abkhazia and the OSCE in South Ossetia, effectively curbing their field presence. Following Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), a 200-strong, unarmed presence of police and military officers established to monitor the ceasefire, was not allowed to enter the two regions. The EUMM finds itself monitoring what the EU and Georgia consider an administrative boundary and Russia views as a state border. As of 2009, no mediating international organization has had a permanent field presence inside Abkhazia or South Ossetia to form an independent assessment of developments there.

These physical limitations on the implementation of the accords were followed by legal obfuscation. Despite the provisions clearly stipulating the withdrawal of the Russian and Georgian forces, Russia disagrees that the six-point accord was a ceasefire concluded between Georgia and Russia, on the grounds that it was not signed by the two presidents, a technicality, since President Sarkozy signed with each leader separately. Moreover, based on an error in the Russian translation of the French original, Russia claims that the document is a ceasefire between Georgia on one side, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other, to which Russia claims to be a mediator at the GID, alongside international organizations, with at least observer status, like the United States.

Thus, by the time the GID had gathered for its first meeting in October 2008, the co-chairs had already “internalized the impossibility of full implementation” of the ceasefire agreement, according to a senior European diplomat. The reason was Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and the subsequent deployment of the Russian military to bases there “on the basis of bilateral agreements.” These “new realities,” Russian diplomats claimed, nullified the provisions of the six-point accords, in particular, Russia’s obligation to withdraw its forces from the region.

Security Buildup

Consequently, the EU and Russia find themselves in a standoff. The EU’s mediation effort is a nearly impossible task, since the ceasefire agreement is not fully implemented or even recognized by all parties. There is still no agreed-upon overarching security mechanism in place. The limited incident prevention and mediation mechanisms, which provide an emergency hotline and host regular meetings, can only address specific security incidents on the ground.

Moreover, Georgia perceives an existential threat from Russia’s expanding military presence. According to Russian official sources, military bases in Tskhinvali and Abkhazia have close to 4,500 men each and are equipped with a considerable arsenal of defensive and offensive weapons. In 2017, a significant portion of South Ossetia’s operational military units came under Russian command, while in Abkhazia a “shared” but effectively Russian command structure was established.

These forces alone are on par with, and in some areas exceed, Georgia’s own military capability. The Tskhinvali base has critical Georgian infrastructure, such as the East-West highway and a major oil pipeline, within striking distance, while Iskander-M missiles have Georgia’s capital within firing range.

Both the Tskhinvali and Abkhazia military bases administratively fall within Russia’s Southern Military District and exercise routinely with the 49th Army based in Stavropol and 58th Army in Vladikavkaz. Georgia’s cooperation with NATO, although active and increasingly aligned through structural reforms, comes nowhere near achieving a balance of forces on the ground.

These tangible security concerns for Georgia extend to the EU, which is worried about the potential destabilizing effects this pressure might have on Tbilisi. An additional concern is the formal annexation of one or both territories by Russia, which does not sound far-fetched after Crimea. 

Can the Gaps Be Bridged?

For the EU mediators in Geneva, the primary question that these conflicting realities create is “which conflict are we mediating?”

Georgia views the GID as a process of mediation with Russia, following the August 2008 war between the two countries. Participants from Moscow, Tskhinvali, and Sukhumi view negotiations as mediating the conflict between Georgia on the one hand, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other.

The EU—legally and institutionally—gravitates toward mediating the Georgia-Russia conflict, but sees little possibility of headway. EU leverage on Moscow is limited, since it has already imposed sanctions against Russia relating to the annexation of Crimea. Further confrontation would add—or change—little.

But precisely because the conflict with Georgia now has a lower profile than Ukraine, the EU and Russia might start exploring ways to minimize the risk of confrontation and even test approaches for accommodation. There are possible areas where the conflicting realities meet. 

Two particular areas stand out.

Firstly, underlying military tension must be reduced. GID has been treading water on the basic declaration of commitment not to use force. Even if headway in negotiations is achieved, this would change little in practical terms regarding security arrangements on the ground. Therefore, new avenues for negotiations could involve discussions of enhanced confidence- and security-building measures tailored to suit this particular conflict. These might include measures to reduce long-range and offensive weapons deployment, as well as prior notifications about military drills. The EUMM can provide a useful monitoring mechanism, while politically the issue can be negotiated either directly between the EU and Russia, or under the wider umbrella of the OSCE.

Secondly, the EU can underscore its commitment to human rights as a central feature of its neighborhood agenda and actively propose technical solutions that would improve the lives of residents in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in terms of access to education, healthcare, necessary administrative documents, and freedom of movement and trade. These issues fall under the provisions of the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) signed with Georgia, and from Brussels’s perspective can extend to Sukhumi and Tskhinvali as well. The EU has experience mediating such arrangements from the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, which, albeit controversial, has generated a toolbox of technical solutions that might prove applicable. Russia can contribute to this process either by actively engaging in seeking solutions, or at least by not preventing them from taking place.

These solutions, although technically feasible, may only become a reality if both the EU and Russia feel the confrontation has led them into a damaging crisis. So far, it is unclear whether Moscow feels that losses from this conflict with the EU exceed their perceived gains in terms of political prestige and geopolitical positioning in the shared neighborhood. 

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.

By:
  • Jaba Devdariani