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Russia vs. Georgia: The Fallout
International Crisis Group
22 August 2008

The Russia-Georgia conflict has transformed the contemporary geopolitical world, with large consequences for peace and security in Europe and beyond. (...)

At the broader level, the crisis raises significant questions about the capacity of the EU, the UN and NATO to address fundamental issues. While European leaders stepped forward to achieve the ceasefire agreement, their inability to put forward a forceful response to the Russian action reflects a lowest common denominator approach that discourages stronger and more innovative policies. () And in the process of seeking justification for its actions, Russia has also misstated and distorted the UN-approved principle of "responsibility to protect". (...)

The Russian government has argued that its military operations in Georgia were justified by the principle of "responsibility to protect" (R2P); that is, that the perpetration or imminent threat of atrocity crimes against South Ossetians compelled it to step in militarily. President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin and UN Ambassador Churkin have described Georgia's actions against populations in South Ossetia as "genocide".

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov explicitly argued that Russia's use of force was an exercise of its responsibility to protect. Under the Constitution [the President] is obliged to protect the life and dignity of Russian citizens, especially when they find themselves in the armed conflict. And today he reiterated that the peace enforcement operation enforcing peace on one of the parties which violated its own obligations would continue until we achieve the results.

() The responsibility to protect norm, as embraced by the UN General Assembly in the 2005 World Summit, does not provide a legitimate basis for Russia's military actions in Georgia, for a number of reasons.

In the first place, the primary ground stated for intervention "to protect Russian citizens" was not in fact an R2P rationale. The statement by Foreign Minister Lavrov blurs the distinction between the responsibilities of a state to protect its populations inside its borders, and the responsibilities that a state maintains for populations outside its borders. R2P is about the responsibility of a sovereign state to protect populations within its own borders, and of other states to assist it to do so, but also to take appropriate action if it is manifestly failing to do so; it does not address the question of an individual country taking direct action to protect its nationals located outside its own borders.

() A number of criteria are relevant here, and it is not clear that any of them were satisfied:

*Seriousness of threat. It is not at all clear whether "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity" were being committed, or imminently about to be, by Georgia against South Ossetians. ()

*Primary purpose. While one purpose of the Russian military intervention may have been to protect South Ossetian civilians under attack, it is highly questionable whether that was the primary motive: others appear to have been to establish full Russian control over both South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in the latter of which there was not even claimed to be a threat of mass atrocity crimes); to dismantle Georgia's entire military capability; to scuttle its NATO ambitions; and to send a clear signal to other former parts of the Soviet Union as to what would and would not be tolerated by Moscow.

*Last Resort. While there is not always time in fast-moving situations to fully work through alternative strategies as distinct from making a reasonable judgment as to whether they would or would not likely be effective an immediate Security Council call for Georgia to cease its military action does not seem to have been out of reach and would have placed Tbilisi under great pressure to comply. ()

*Proportionality. The introduction of some 20,000 troops and 100 tanks not only into South Ossetia but also into Abkhazia and Georgia proper appears manifestly excessive. ()

*Balance of Consequences. This is very difficult to argue here on the present state of the evidence about refugee outflows and unrestrained reprisal actions by South Ossetian separatists against Georgians, quite apart from concerns about wider implications for regional and global stability.

() The Russia-Georgia case highlights the dangers and risks of states, whether individually or in a coalition, interpreting global norms unilaterally and launching military action without UN Security Council authorization. The sense of moral outrage at reports of civilians being killed and ethnically cleansed can have the unintended effect of clouding judgment on the best response, which is another reason to channel action collectively through the United Nations. The Russian references to similar action by other P5 members in other theatres may reinforce doubts about those other instances but does not justify the Russian actions in Georgia. Indeed they reinforce the dangers of vigilante justice across borders. (...)


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