Along with the measures it sets out for preventing and limiting military conflicts, Russia’s new military doctrine, among other passages, includes “co-operation with the Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the purpose of ensuring joint defense and security”. It is noteworthy that the new doctrine calls for Russia to use military force in a number of cases, including:
- For the protection of Russian citizens living outside the borders of the Russian Federation.
- In cases when “armed attacks” or “any other actions involving the use of military force” are carried out against “allied states”.
The legality, under international law, of the first of these two cases is particularly doubtful, but the doctrine stubbornly keeps on making references to its “compliance” with international norms. In addition, the doctrine lists this case among the tasks that Russian armed forces can carry out in peacetime, meaning that Russia can use its military force on the territory of another country in order to defend its own citizens and it may not even recognize this as a warlike situation. To this end, the streamlined procedures for awarding Russian citizenship as laid down in Russia’s treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were developed in November and December 2014, raise a number of questions. If this provision is widely applied, the majority of the regions’ citizens will become fully-fledged Russian citizens, and protecting them as such will be one of the main tasks of the Russian armed forces.
The second case—the use of military force beyond the borders of Russian Federation in response to an act of aggression against an allied state—also needs to be carefully analyzed. The fact that the new doctrine was adopted simultaneously with the signing of the “Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership” with Abkhazia and South Ossetia is very suggestive. Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s status now precisely coincides with the term used in the new doctrine—“allies”. In addition, the term “aggression” is not limited to a military attack against the “sovereign territory” of allies of Russian Federation: the doctrine qualifies as “aggression” any act undertaken against “allied states… during which military force is used”. The latter definition was introduced to justify the deployment of Russian military forces even when there is no actual “aggression”, but instead merely some form of military confrontation between Russia’s allies and a third country (e.g. an intrusion into the territory of another state, etc.).
What does this vague definition mean?
Russia is planning to defend its allies even when confrontation takes place along the border (dividing line) or on the territory of a third country (the rest of Georgia). Let us imagine that tensions increase along the dividing line between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, and that both parties shoot at each other. Based upon the new doctrine, Russian military forces would consider the situation as casus belli and would become involved in military actions against Georgia. Moreover, in accordance with the doctrine, even if Georgia repels a military attack on the territory it controls by the puppet South Ossetian government, Georgian military forces may be attacked by the Russian army. The doctrine considers as “aggression” any use of military force against Russia’s allies (without specifying where the confrontation takes place), and reserves the right to defend them from the “aggressor”.
Russia does not need to involve Abkhazian or South Ossetian forces in such provocations: according to the treaties it has signed with these territories, Russia and its “new allies and strategic partners” have joint armed forces. In South Ossetia, both armed forces will unify unconditionally as specified in the planned treaty. In Abkhazia, this unification should nominally be preceded by a “threat of aggression” recognized by both parties, the “conclusion” of which should not present any particular problems from the moment it becomes important for the implementation of Russian plans.
An additional, albeit hypothetical, threat is the fact that neither Abkhazia nor South Ossetia, which Russia both recognizes as independent, has internationally recognized borders—not even with Georgia, which is considered a neighboring country. On one hand, this offers us some advantages in terms of the strengthening of our territorial integrity at the international level. On the other hand, however, Russia can use this situation for a “creeping occupation”: any new claim over territory controlled by the Georgian government can be made by immediately deploying military sub-units to that territory; if Georgian military forces then try to restore the status quo, Russian military forces will consider it their duty—and will indeed be ordered—to defend their “allies against military force”. The Russian government will then use the following arguments as political justification for its actions:
- Russia recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states;
- These states do not have delimited borders with Georgia;
- Georgia does not recognize their independence and, consequently, does not negotiate with them;
- The territorial disputes all this has caused have essentially become a conflict;
- This conflict has escalated into armed confrontation; and
- It is Russia’s responsibility to react to third parties’ use of armed force against its allies and to “temporarily deploy limited forces” into zones of military confrontation.
Russia could easily expand these “zones” to such an extent as to enable it to occupy other regions of Georgia through which its armed forces could travel, linking South Ossetia to Armenia and thus achieving one of its primary strategic goals. Subsequently, the Russian government would call upon the Georgian government to negotiate with Russia’s allies and resolve territorial disputes peacefully. This would lead to deadlock, that is to say it would lead to a new status quo in which Georgia could only survive as a whole and united state under Russia (and then only in the best possible scenario at that).
Similar scenarios can be outlined in different directions—conflict with Abkhazia followed by the occupation of Georgia’s major port in Poti, for example. In order to avoid unsubstantiated speculations, however, I will stop here and will not list more complicated “combinations”. These are just hypotheses, of course, but the threat that they may come to pass is unquestionably real.
Let us consider if Russia has motives for such actions.
The answer is yes: Russia gained its strategic advantage over Georgia when it occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, retained its military base in Armenia and secured the right to stay there for years. By doing all this, Russia reduced Georgia’s attractiveness for NATO. However, Russia failed to “dissociate” Azerbaijan from Turkey or to “block” the corridor connecting Europe and the West to the Caspian. It also failed to veto NATO’s southward expansion or to exclude the possibility of establishing an American military base in Georgia. These are just a tiny selection of the problems which Russia is planning to solve in future, and by using its treaties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the above-mentioned context, Russia can give itself a wide range of options.
It goes without saying that Russia would violate international norms if it followed the approaches outlined above. So does it make any sense for Russia to use such “devious paths”? Why can’t it just openly attack Georgia?
In order to answer this question, we will have to return to Russia’s military doctrine, which in almost every chapter related to the use of military force states that the latter will be done “with full respect for international norms and principles and international treaties signed by the Russian Federation”. In terms of international norms and principles vis-à-vis the international community, Russia has been following its own interpretations of them for a long time, and so cannot be stopped by international law if the conditions of its violations allow different interpretations. Direct and unsubstantiated aggression, however, cannot be justified by any state—not even by those currently “standing aside”. The West has isolated Russia because of its annexation of the Crimea, but Russia does not want to find itself completely isolated from other actors (e.g. China, India, Brazil, etc.). But even these states will have to choose a camp if Russia commits another act of direct and armed aggression against a sovereign state.
As for the second part of the given provision (“international treaties”), the Russian Federation has already signed a number of treaties that do not comply with the norms and principles of international law, and any of Russia’s actions may contradict either the first or the second condition. Russian legislation does not contain any explanation that would state which condition prevails (an international treaty or the norms of international law). The Russian government will therefore consider as “legitimate” any action that will comply with either of them. (We assume our readers may very well understand which one that might be…)
Finally, we can summarize that:
- Russia’s treaties of alliance with Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in full conformity with its new military doctrine.
- Following the doctrine and the treaties will most likely create a basis for further aggression against Georgia.
- Particular international situations may make the effective implementation of these opportunities possible, and the puppet governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (separately or together) will be used to create a pretext for aggression against Georgia.