08 Aug Frozen Conflict Becomes Hot War: Russia Invades Georgia
The frozen conflict over the Georgian separatist region South Ossetia has become a shooting war. On the first day of the Olympics, no less. According to CNN:
“All day today, they’ve been bombing Georgia from numerous warplanes and specifically targeting (the) civilian population, and we have scores of wounded and dead among (the) civilian population all around the country,” President Mikhail Saakashvili told CNN in an exclusive interview.
“This is the worst nightmare one can encounter,” he said.
Hundreds of people, possibly thousands, are fleeing South Ossetia to the Russian region of North Ossetia-Alania, the United Nations reported Friday, citing Russian officials. About 400 more are believed to have fled for other parts of Georgia, the United Nations said.
Asked whether Georgia and Russia were now at war, he said, “My country is in self-defense against Russian aggression. Russian troops invaded Georgia.”
About 150 Russian armored vehicles have entered South Ossetia, Saakashvili said, and Georgian forces had shot down two Russian aircraft.
The separatist conflicts in the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have often been termed “frozen conflicts,” along with other long-standing separatist crises in Moldova and Azerbaijan (and some would add Kosovo). There are many reasons why these conflict have been seemingly intractable. Factors ranging from Russian assistance to the separatists (especially in the Georgian and Moldovan cases), a sense of ethnic difference (justified or not), historical grievances, and factions that seek to derail negotiated solutions are problems in all of these conflicts.
Georgia , however has been in the unenviable position of having two distinct separatist regions: one in Abkhazia and the other in South Ossetia. Russia has taken an increasingly interventionist stance on the situation in Georgia, especially since Kosovo’s declaration of independence. I have heard many experts express concern that, of the frozen conflicts, one (or both) of the Georgian conflicts were at greatest risk of becoming real wars. In part, this is because Russia is most easily able to exert direct influence as both regions border Russia and Russia can easily roll in the tanks, as it has done today.
This crisis points out an interesting divergeance between how Russia talks about international law and how the EU and US do, as I’ve written about here. In short, when it comes to the frozen conflicts the EU and the U.S. focus on the international norms concerning sovereignty, territorial integrity, and that self-determination does not lead to a right of secession. Russia, however, tends to focus on norms concerning minority rights and the ability of states to defend the interests of “co-nationals.” Seemingly in an attempt to fortify the “co-nationals” argument, Russia has been recently providing passports to just about anyone in Abkhazia or South Ossetia who asked for one. Russia then argues that these people–who had until then lived their lives in Georgia–are best understood as Russian citizens. This “passportization” policy has been widely criticized. This argument based on minority rights and the protection of co-nationals seems to be at the heart of Russia’s explanations of its invasion of Georgia. According to CNN:
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meanwhile said Moscow had received reports that villages in South Ossetia were being ethnically cleansed, according to Reuters.com.
“We are receiving reports that a police of ethnic cleansing was being conducted in villages in South Ossetia, the number of refugees is climbing, the panic is growing, people are trying to save their lives,” he was reported saying
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax, said Russians had died because of Georgia’s operations.
Russia “will not allow the deaths of our compatriots to go unpunished” and “those guilty will receive due punishment,” he said. “My duty as Russian president is to safeguard the lives and dignity of Russian citizens, wherever they are. This is what is behind the logic of the steps we are undertaking now.”
Note that with the ethnic cleansing argument, Russia seeks to essentially say “NATO, this is no different than what you did in Kosovo.” Medevdyev also uses the co-nationals argument.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia brings to a head many issues that have been floating around, ranging from arguments over NATO’s invasion of Kosovo to the proper understanding of self-determination to the role of Russia in the ongoing frozen conflicts.
I will have more on the situation in Georgia and the related international legal issues, later. For now, Postmodern Conservative is keeping a running summary of the news related to the invasion.
Thanks Chris – I look forward to your continuing commentary on this issue.
FYI – from a RIA Novosti story on Tuesday:
“If Georgia starts fighting against South Ossetia, Abkhazia will open a ‘second front,'” Abkhazia’s deputy defense minister, Garri Kupalba, told the paper. “Abkhazia will without a doubt take part in military actions.”
Well part of the problem is that Ossetia has no historical ties to the Georgians. The Ossetians have always been traditional allies of the Russians. Ossetia was always autonomous under Russian rule, but Stalin still divided it between Russia and Georgia without the Ossetians consent. Still it was autonomous.
When Gerogia became independent the Ossetians were not happy and didn’t want to be part of Georgia. They especially got angry because the Georgians want to impose the Georgian language on them. They first declared themselves autonomous (which the Georgians took away) and then independent and war developed. There’s been a ceasefire for 14 years now, when the Georgians didn’t win the war.
The point is that perhaps when Georgia was given independenc, surely the autonomous Ossetians should have had the right to vote to. Especially sine unlike in Kosovo the Georgians have no hsitorical ties to that area, In fact I think Georgia was suppose to let those people get a refrendum at the time of independance but didn’t.
I don’t see this ending well for anyone involved, especially if Abkhazia blows up next.
[…] را دعوت می کنم به خواندن یادداشت Chris Borgen روی opinio juris؛ من تردید ندارم بین حقوقدانان امریکایی ، این مورد یکی […]
How could you say that ”EU and the U.S. focus on the international norms concerning sovereignty, territorial integrity, and that self-determination does not lead to a right of secession”, when both EU and USA are promoting secession of Kosovo Albanians, and recognizing Kosovo as independent state?
Their recognition of Kosovo as an independent state is a violation of Serbia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and it gives a whole new meaning to self-determination, i.e. it made secession a logical continuation of proclaimed self-determination.
Now we see what happens… Kosovo is not an unique case, I would say, and that ”law-obiding” approach is leading to some pretty unlawful acts nowadays.
I was referring to the arguments that I expected U.S. and the European states to make in this case, not regarding Kosovo. Actually, Russia is playing a similar game, speaking very forcefully about territorial integrity and sovereignty in relation to Serbia, and all but ignoring these issues whyen it comes to Georgia and Moldova.
I agree that Kosovo is the “elephant in the room…” I discuss Kosovo at greater length in this piece .
Dear Chris, I wonder whether one could put the argument in even stronger terms. It seems to me that so far the issue of Kosovo has been completely irrelevant, at least in legal terms. To follow the Court’s suggestion in Nicaragua, we have to look at the particular arguments that States have put forward to justify the use of force, and not try to imagine the a priori best argument, that could apply to the situation. So far, Russia has not said that ‘we recognise South Ossetia as a State according to the Kosovo criteria and move in to protect it’. It has rather put forward a mixture of other arguments, initially talking about protection of nationals (with some ambiguity whether it means the Russian-passport wielding civilians or the Russian peacekeepers), something seemingly quite close to humanitarian intervention (hence the talk about ethnic cleansing and genocide) and now appears to have decided to rely principally on the peacekeeping aspect: “Russia’s aim is to keep peace. This is not just Russia’s aim, this is Russia’s obligation. Russian peacekeepers have been brought there under the agreement between the parties after the war which started in the early nineties. The late President Gamsakhurdia… Read more »
I have read your text about Kosovo when it was posted, actually included link to it on the website about legal aspects of Kosovo problem that I run with my colleagues.
The problem is definitely two-sided approach, both in USA and Russia. Hearing Bush speak about territorial integrity could only make me laugh. And hearing Russia use the same arguments as NATO back in 1999. doesn’t feel good.
Kosovo has been, im my opinion, the trigger. And I am afraid that worst is yet to come (Xinjiang, anyone?). The point I was trying to make is very simple – arguments are used not as they should be, but as USA or Russia want. There is definitely no respect for territorial integrity on both sides, and their attitudes towards territorial integrity seem to converge only when their interests clash.
read, and then talk about ”the point about Kosovo” being ”irrelevant, since neither of the involved parties has relied on it”.
Southern Ossetian leaders are relying on it since Kosovo proclaimed independence. Russian president is talking about it since ever since he was elected (not to mention the former president, now prime minister), as well as minister of foreign affairs doing it on weekly basis for almost two years. And I hope that you have seen some of the Halilzad-Churkin exchange yesterday… And that is purely legal talk.
Dear Dragutin, I do apologise for my somewhat careless language; I thought that the context made reasonably clear what I meant. For ‘irrelevant, since neither of the involved parties has relied on it’ read ‘irrelevant, since neither of the involved parties has relied on it to justify the use of force’. The views of South Ossetia are irrelevant to the extent that they are not accepted by the international community, and they have not been. Georgian views are clear. Despite Russia’s critical attitude towards the idea of Kosova’s independence more generally, it has not made the argument that ‘we recognise Ossetia to be a State (in accordance with the criteria established by Kosovo case that we now recognise as a right and accurate statement of international law) and then move in to exercise the right of collective self-defense’. The maximum that Russia has said is that in light of the conflict it may be worth reconsidering in the future the extent of Georgia’s territorial integrity: a very different legal point from saying that the use of force was justified because South Ossetia was a State within the meaning of international law. None of the multitude of Russian legal arguments —… Read more »
Passerby, I think we should make a distinction (or even better, I should have done that in my previous comment) between two types of claims based on Kosovo experience: one made by Southern Ossetia (however irrelevant that might be, and not getting the recognition even from Russia), and another made by Russia. The Southern Ossetian claim is one demanding independence, based on the Kosovo declaring its independence in February. That one is also the one Russian diplomats were warning about before the violence errupted in Southern Ossetia.That was the claim I was reffering to in some of the links, and I obviously missed your point about use of force, so they are very much irrelevant for that matter. Time will show will Russia recognize Southern Ossetia or not, and what will be the outcome. Then we could argue about this analogy again, and the alleged uniqueness of Kosovo case. Now, the Russian claim about the use of force in 1999. comes into play. Not as a justification for the present actions, as you notice, but as a question, still unanswered, about the scope of actions in 1999, and probably a moral lecture as well – which is very cautious move… Read more »
It is good that we agree.
The only brief point is that I don’t think that the Soci agreement provides a solid legal ground for use of force, even though it it right Russia is now basing itself on it. Article 103 of the Ch and jus cogens preclude States from creating broader rights to use force than those provided for in the Charter, and it sounds slightly absurd to suggest that Georgia itself has agreed that Russia could use force against it more broadly than permitted by the Ch. In any event, according to Soci Agreement and the decisions of the Joint Control Commission that I provided links to supra, in case of breach of cease-fire the JCC investigates the situation and the Joint Peace Keeping Forces respond to the breach. It does not grant any rights to States the nationals of whom constitute the JPKF. Consequently, if we arguendo accept the breach by Georgia, Russia could respond by countermeasures, but not in breach of the rules on the use of force and jus cogens (cf. Article 50 of ILC Articles).
I think that the frequent use of Kosovo analogy regarding the use of force by Russians is exactly the way they are trying to leverage against possible accusations about the breach of Charter and ius cogens. And they will probably use the argument that their peacekeepers were under attack by fellow Georgian peacekeepers, so they needed to act fast and protect them, without the decision of the JCC, probably invoking article 3, para. 5 of the Agreement, and interpreting it widely enough. Although my Russian is not that good, so I might be reading it in a wrong way.
”Russia’s actions in South Ossetia conform to Article 51 of the UN Charter, which fixes the right to individual and collective self-defense,” Lavrov stated.”
So that’s another interpretation…