Russia and the “Bilateralization” of the Georgian Conflict

by Chris Borgen

In the latest chapter of its attempt to consolidate its power over Georgia regarding the South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has vetoed the continuation of the UN mission in the region. According to the AP:

Russia has exercised its veto power in the U.N. Security Council and brought an end to the nearly 16-year-old U.N. observer mission in Georgia and breakaway Abkhazia.

Russia’s veto late Monday toppled a Western plan to extend the life of the mission. The vote was 10-1 with four abstentions — China, Vietnam, Libya and Uganda.

CNN reports:

“The U.N. mission’s previous mandate has actually ceased to exist in the wake of Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia last August,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, who said it was “unacceptable” to extend the mission.

The CNN report later explains:

The crux of the controversy remains Georgia’s territorial integrity. As a result of last year’s war, Russia now considers South Ossetia and Abkhazia sovereign nations independent from Georgia. Russia has no international support for that position aside from the nation of Nicaragua.

This veto is in line with an ongoing Russian strategy to end multilateral involvement (where possible) concerning conflicts in its “near abroad” and to make the resolution of such conflicts a bilateral matter between the country with the separatist conflict and Russia. Besides the veto of the UN mission in Georgia, Russia has also recently attempted to circumvent the multilateral “5+2” mediation process over the conflict in Moldova (Moldova, the separatists, OSCE, Ukraine, Russia + The EU and the US) with new “2+1” talks (Moldova, the separatists, and Russia).

Keeping in mind that the separatists in Georgia (and in Moldova) have been financially, politically, and militarily backed by Russia, the negotiations for any ongoing peace really becomes a negotiation between Georgia (or Moldova) and Russia. By strategically using its veto, Russia has ensured that it remains the indispensable party for peace in Georgia. Without the UN, a new effort at multilateralizing would likely mean either boosting the role of the OSCE or of the EU. (I think a NATO role is unlikely at this point.) But, without any “boots on the ground” as the Russians have in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (or, soon, even a UN observer mission), these other international organizations are at a disadvantage in terms of bargaining power. Moreover, it is unclear that some western European nations will want to play hardball on this issue while they are also dependent on Russia for natural gas.

Thus, I think we are seeing here one more step in Russia bilateralizing (de-multilateralizing?) the situation in Georgia. Such bilateralization is a common technique used by great powers in the relations with relatively weaker states (think “bilateral investment treaties,” for an economic example). I have the impression, though, that Russia tends to use this technique a bit more than other great powers in regards to security issues, posibly due to its historic distrust of multilateral organizations.

4 Responses

  1. Of course, no Western nation has backed up their nominal opposition to Russia’s conquest of territory with even token diplomatic measures. There had been talk of expelling Russia from the G-8 – quickly forgotten. Perhaps most perversely, Russia remains a member in good standing of the “Quartet” which seeks to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank and plans to host a big “peace conference” later this year. 

  2. Chris, is any of this part of your CJIL piece?

  3. Thanks for asking, Ken. This touches on a couple of points in my forthcoming piece for the Chicago Journal of International Law. I held off trying to explain how this relates the the CJIL piece as I thought it was too much of a tangent for one post. I’ll have the piece up on SSRN in the next week or so and then post a summary of the argument I make there.

    For those who hadn’t seen Ken’s and my earlier references to our CJIL articles, we are both contributing pieces to an upcoming theme issue on great powers and international law. My piece compares/contrasts EU, U.S., and Russian uses of international legal arguments in regards to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Like I said, more on that in a few days, once I post my article to SSRN.

  4. Sounds fascinating! (seriously)

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