With President Dmitry Medvedev having ordered a halt to Russia’s military assault on Georgia and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili agreeing to the general principles of a cease-fire plan negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian observers have begun assessing the results and impact of the five-day Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, the pro-Kremlin political scientist who heads the “Russky Mir Foundation for the Support of Fellow Countrymen Abroad,” said the war showed that Russia was capable of acting appropriately in a complex situation and that it had raised Russia to a “new level.” He added, however, that Russia would now have to exert much more diplomatic and political effort to straighten out relations with the European Union, the United States and former Soviet states. For Georgia, the results of the war have been “catastrophic,” Nikonov said. “The territorial integrity of Georgia has been dealt an irreparable blow–by Georgia itself” (www.rbcdaily.ru).
On the other side of the political spectrum, Andrei Illarionov, the former economic adviser to Vladimir Putin who is now a senior researcher at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and a supporter of The Other Russia opposition coalition, wrote that while Georgia’s military losses were greater than Russia’s, Russia had incurred significantly greater “financial, foreign policy [and] moral losses” and had failed to achieve its main goals of removing Mikheil Saakashvili as Georgia’s president, changing Georgia’s “political regime” and preventing Georgia from joining NATO. Illarionov said that Georgia was now an “internationally recognized victim of aggression,” while Russia was an “internationally recognized aggressor,” whose actions were supported only by Cuba. “Neither Iran nor Venezuela nor Uzbekistan nor even Belorussia said a word in support of Russia,” he wrote. What Russia’s leadership managed to “achieve” by its military campaign, Illarionov said, was renewed international fear of the “Russian bear” and the “complete informational isolation” of Russia’s citizenry. “The level of manipulation of public opinion and also … the speed with which society has been reduced to mass hysteria are indisputable achievements of the regime and represent an indisputable and unprecedented threat to Russian society,” he wrote (www.ej.ru, August 13).
According to a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 71 percent of the Russians surveyed on August 9 and 10 said they supported breakaway South Ossetia while only two percent said they supported Georgia. Correspondingly, 46 percent of those polled said that South Ossetia should become part of Russia and 34 percent said it should become an independent state, while only four percent said it should remain part of Georgia. In addition, 53 percent of the respondents said they supported sending Russian troops to South Ossetia (36 percent were opposed) and 57 percent said they had a favorable view of the Russian “volunteers” who went to South Ossetia to fight on the side of the separatists (33 percent of the respondents said they viewed such “volunteers” negatively) (www.levada.ru, August 12).
Prior to the August 13 announcement of a halt in Russia’s military assault, some observers said that the conflict had strengthened Russia’s siloviki (see EDM, August 11) and ensured the political dominance of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who appeared to be the driving force behind the assault on Georgia. “Under the volleys of Grad missiles and explosions of aviation bombs, the problem that so tormented him [Putin] and the entire ‘political elite’–the problem of a third, which is to say life-long, presidential term–has been organically resolved,” wrote Andrei Piontkovsky. “The Gatherer of the Russian Lands has a long mission, one paved with the best intentions. No one will even think of limiting it by any artificial pseudo-constitutional time frames. This is the most important domestic result of his second Short Victorious War” (www.grani.ru, August 12).
However, after President Medvedev’s announcement of a halt to the military campaign, which followed his talks with French President Sarkozy, some observers speculated that there was a split between Putin and Medvedev over the course of the war and that Medvedev had gained the upper hand. According to Yezhednevny zhurnal columnist Aleksandr Ryklin, something must have intervened to prevent the Russian government from seeing the military operation to its “logical end,” meaning the removal of the Saakashvili government. “Let us confess that even on the morning of August 12 a further escalation of the conflict with Georgia looked inevitable,” he wrote. “The continued bombardment of the territory of this still independent republic; the appearance of our [military] units at the approaches to Poti [the Georgian port city]; the naming of General [Vladimir] Shamanov [the hard-line former commander of Russian forces in Chechnya] as Gauleiter of Abkhazia (with the obvious prospect of him becoming the governor-general of all of Georgia); the unprecedented, aggressive rhetoric of officials, including representatives of the diplomatic corps–all of this pointed to the determination of the Russian leadership to see the affair to its ‘logical end,’ that is, the removal of Mikhail Saakashvili’s regime. And suddenly, [there was] Dmitry Medvedev’s sensational announcement.”
Ryklin quoted a source “close to the current presidential administration” as saying: “Today one can … speak of serious disagreements between the president and the premier over the further development of events in the Caucasus. The president from the start did not plan to go beyond the bounds of the peacekeeping mission [in South Ossetia], and at a certain point they began to talk to him about ‘the logic of war’ and the unexpected appearance of the possibility to resolve ‘important geopolitical tasks.’ He, in turn, pointed to the lack of preparedness of the military operation, the large losses and the severe foreign policy consequences. Today one can note with satisfaction that the president’s point of view prevailed and he was able to insist on a positive solution.”
It is worth noting that Ryklin doubted the veracity of this version of events, writing that it was more likely that the military operation was ended by something more “down to earth,” for example, “someone somewhere showed someone” a list of “well-known” names with their corresponding foreign bank accounts, or perhaps just one name with that person’s foreign bank accounts, and threatened to expose it (www.ej.ru, August 13).
Time will tell whether this version of Putin-the-hawk and Medvedev-the-dove turns out to be true—and if true, whether it matters.