Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 196

Russian troops withdrawing to Abkhazia after the August 2008 conflict with Georgia (AP)

At the CIS summit in Bishkek on October 9 and 10, Russia announced the termination of the “CIS collective peacekeeping operation in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone.” Moscow describes its move as a common decision of the assembled heads of state and government, in a final attempt to portray the now-defunct operation as having been approved multi-nationally from its inception to its end (Interfax, Itar-Tass, October 9, 10).

Despite its CIS cover, the “collective peacekeeping” in Abkhazia was always purely Russian. After 2002 CIS meetings abandoned even the pretense of discussing this operation, let alone prolonging its “mandate.” The CIS in any case is not authorized to mandate peacekeeping operations, and Georgia has in any case quit the CIS following the Russian invasion of the country’s interior.

Moscow’s move ends a 14-year-old “peacekeeping” pretense that culminated in Russia’s full-scale military seizure of Abkhazia from Georgia, rendering any peacekeeping redundant from Moscow’s viewpoint. Russian “peacekeepers,” who acted ostensibly under a “CIS mandate” and with Georgian consent extracted under duress since 1994, are now to be replaced by far larger Russian forces, by “agreement” with the Abkhaz authorities, whom Moscow installed in the first place and has now given “diplomatic recognition.”

Admittedly, Russia never received a “special responsibility for peacekeeping in the CIS,” a role that Moscow sought in vain during the 1990s in international organizations. It did, however, exercise that role in practice, as the first stage in a long-term empire-restoration strategy. Whether recognized officially or conceded de facto, a peacekeeping monopoly is one key ingredient of sphere-of-influence building.

International organizations and Western governments accepted Russia’s claim to be a neutral mediator between Georgia and the Abkhaz, even as Russia acted from the outset as a participant in the conflict against Georgia on Georgia’s own territory. That international pretense continued despite Russia’s military operations, economic embargos, and political warfare against Georgia.

The United Nations Security Council, nevertheless, routinely applauded the Russian “peacekeeping” in Abkhazia. While never authorizing that operation, the UNSC paid it compliments each time when prolonging the mandate of UNOMIG (UN Observer Mission in Georgia) at six-month intervals. Moscow demanded and received this genuflection regularly as a condition for not vetoing UNOMIG. The U.S. State Department and other Western chancelleries went along with this semiannual travesty.

The Russian operation, however, breached the UN’s fundamental rules of peacekeeping operations. Such operations require consent by the sovereign state on the territory on which they are deployed. The consent must involve not only acceptance of the operation as such but also the parameters of its implementation. Neighboring countries and countries with a direct interest or stake in the given conflict may not be troop contributors to the peacekeeping operation. Such operations are by definition international, not a monopoly of any one country. Peacekeeping operations abide by the principles of inviolability of borders and non-interference in internal affairs of the country in which they are deployed.

In an unprecedented breach of peacekeeping norms, the Russian military backed the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from Abkhazia in 1994 and has refused to this day to assist in their safe return. Russian “peacekeepers” helped arm the Abkhaz forces and maintain arms stockpiles shared with their Abkhaz proxies.

On the whole, the Euro-Atlantic community never displayed a sense of urgency on this issue. It approached it in a spirit of benign neglect when Russia was weak and later in a spirit of dependency on Russian “help” to resolve various Western dilemmas, even before Russia grew stronger. The year 2002 came close to a turning point toward Western hands-on involvement. The U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia summits, held near Rome in May of that year, adopted decisions, as expressed in the respective communiqués for joint U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia peacekeeping and conflict-resolution efforts on Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Karabakh (with Russia listed in second place throughout). This Western initiative dissipated within months, however, as the United States and NATO became distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States and West European governments have practically conceded a “peacekeeping” monopoly to Moscow in the “CIS space”—Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Tajikistan—from 1992 until now. Only the government of Azerbaijan under then-president Heydar Aliyev had the foresight to turn down the offer of “third-country” peacekeeping by Russia through the OSCE in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.

It is a tribute to Russian strategy and Western disorientation that Moscow began, conducted, and ended this “peacekeeping” operation on its own terms during all these years, without serious challenge. Georgian and other appeals to internationalize the peacekeeping format fell mostly on deaf, indifferent, or distracted ears in the West during all this time. Down to the Russian invasion in August of this year, Western governments continually advised Georgia to show patience and tone down or postpone demands for replacing this purely Russian operation. Now, however, Russia itself has ended its operation in its own way and timing and on its own terms, which are worse than ever from the West’s and Georgia’s perspective.

Moscow now takes the position, as Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov announced, that Russian troops in Abkhazia will “no longer be peacekeepers. They will from now on be armed forces,” to be stationed there under a basing agreement with the Russian-recognized Abkhaz authorities (Interfax, Itar-Tass, October 9, 10). Those forces are slated to include a brigade-size ground force, to be supplemented by air and naval elements, at reactivated Soviet-era bases.