Georgia-Russia: Getting Security Right

This past spring, the observers of largely anemic diplomatic talks in Geneva were exited to hear the reluctant confirmation by the Georgian foreign ministry of the “minor progress” regarding the non-use-of-force (NUF) agreement. This followed on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s “expectation” that such agreement was becoming “realistic…in the foreseeable future.”

The NUF agreement has been the holy grail of the Geneva International Discussions (GID) – a diplomatic gathering to sort out the aftermath of the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. But even if the abyss between the incompatible diplomatic positions can be breached, NUF would be of no consequence in real security terms. This must worry Georgia and – by extensions – its Western allies.

An Idea whose Time has Passed

As the August 2008 war has ended, the ceasefire agreement and the document on its implementation modalities of September 2008 foresaw establishment of the non-use of force regime, accompanied by the international security arrangements (ISA). Discussion of these two topics have duly entered the agenda of GID, intended to translate the ceasefire into more durable security and political arrangement.

The reality has overtaken the original intentions almost instantly. Russia has recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and subsequently signed agreements on permanent stationing of its military bases there. In 2016-2017, additional agreements saw the Abkhaz and South Ossetian military units either absorbed into, or put under Russian command.

The European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), originally seen as the key component of the ISA to oversee the implementation of the ceasefire and potential subsequent agreements was never allowed access to either Abkhazia or South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region.

The NUF discussions at GID have stalled. Georgia made a unilateral pledge on non-use of force in 2010 at the UN General Assembly, which was reiterated by its successive legislatures. Sokhumi and Tskhinvali leaderships made similar pledges. However, Russia refuses to make a pledge on a flimsy pretense that it is a mediator, rather than a party to conflict.

Although the key elements of NUF document have long been identified at GID, Russia insists that it is signed by Georgia on one side and Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other. Tbilisi refuses, arguing that such a signature would amount to a de facto recognition of the two breakaway regions’ independence, and also that Russia, not these entities represent a military threat to its security.

A compromise solution mentioned by the diplomats, may plausibly take a shape of a “Statement of the GID co-chairs” which won’t be signed by the discussion participants, but in which the representatives of the EU, UN and OSCE would reflect the agreement on key principles. Such a statement is likely to be followed up by unilateral – and widely incompatible – interpretations from all quarters. It is also doubtful, whether such “relayed agreement” would have any binding force, especially as all participants are in Geneva in their individual, rather than official capacity. Moreover, the credibility of Moscow’s pledges has hit the rock bottom, once the Kremlin has blatantly violated the properly signed 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s security.

The Threat is Real

The legalistic and diplomatic squabbles have brought GID to a virtual standstill in debating ISA, despite some early progress. Establishment of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms (IPRMs) early in the process (2009) remains the only agreement reached during the process that brings tangible results through operation of the incident hotline, and regular discussions between the security agencies close to the administrative boundary lines (ABLs). These are mediated by GID co-Chairs and attended by EUMM representatives.

However, the IPRMs are fragile, as proven by a long intermission in the work of Gali IPRM. As a result of a particularly ill-tempered political spat with Sokhumi authorities, these were stopped in April 2012. Diplomatic grand-standing ensued and the Gali IPRM could only be restored in May 2016. IPRMs are also covering rather narrow field of cross-boudary security incidents. They won’t be useful in case of any willful, planned security breach, let alone a major escalation.

In the meantime, the tensions between the EU and Russia have grown considerably against the background of annexation of Crimea, the lingering conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region and the subsequent sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia.

The Russian military number 4500 servicemen with heavy offensive weapons in each Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, and are integrated into a larger military formation of the Southern Military District, which also includes North Caucasus and Crimea (see map). Large scale military exercises, including unannounced snap checks are frequent.

Against the background of Georgia’s determination to deepen its integration with NATO, this creates an atmosphere of tension and perception of insecurity, which is damaging to region’s development.

The Potential Role of “Rightsized” CSBMs

With the effective demise of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty the South Caucasus theater is largely devoid of functional CSBM mechanisms. Although Georgia (as well as Ukraine) has tried to utilize OSCE CSBM mechanisms, the built-in safeguards regarding the limit sizes of the troops, equipment and “unusual military activities” were designed for the context of larger, cold-war confrontation between two opposing military superpowers. These tools are ill-fitted in a context of smaller, regional conflicts where a battery of short-range tactical missiles or MLRS can attain a strategic significance.

It might thus be useful for GID to start re-thinking the International Security Arrangements in terms of a revised CSBM regime, “rightsized” for these conflicts. Such ISA would aim to increase transparency and predictability of the military deployments and moves, reduce threat perceptions of the regional actors and minimize harm of any potential escalation.

The renewed ISA/CSBMs could aim at banning or reducing the number of offensive weapons (tanks, attack aircraft, tactical missiles, MLRS) conferring overwhelming tactical battlefield advantage as well as the ban of non-discriminating weapons systems (MLRS, especially with thermobaric munitions, fragmentation munitions, chemical agents, etc.). They could also include deployment of enhanced third-party surveillance and monitoring systems and instituting internationally mandated monitoring mechanisms to enhance the predictability of military operations.

The talks will be difficult, and require serious diplomatic muscle. But at least they would help make a step towards the open articulation and debate of wider security concerns. NUF talks can no longer achieve even that.