Russia's Policy on Ethnic Conflict in Georgia

by James Graham

Russia's policy towards ethnic conflict in Georgia has reflected the fluid and conflicting nature of Russian domestic politics. During the early 1990s Russia's Defence Ministry helped create an unstable and weak Georgia while Russia's Foreign Ministry pushed the need for a strong independent and friendly Georgia as a bulwark against Islamist expansion. Under Putin Russia has linked Georgia to its Chechnya conflict and the war on terrorism. The result has been a weak and fragmented Georgia that has survived in dismembered state. This has satisfied most of Russia's desires but broken and humiliated, Georgia presents a long-term problem for Russia largely of its own making.


Georgia's strategic position has ensured it is of vital military and economic significance to Russia. Its border with NATO member Turkey has always made Georgia strategically important and warranting the locating of numerous Soviet military bases within its territory. Georgia's opposite border is with the unstable North Caucasus region of Russia including the breakaway province of Chechnya. Georgian territory also contains vital Black Sea ports and sits astride potential routes for Russian controlled oil and gas pipelines. Additionally communications and pipelines linking Russia and pro-Russian Armenia run exclusively through Georgia. Russia's policy towards ethnic conflict in Georgia had to take account of numerous geo-strategic factors.

The Russian Defence Ministry's policy toward ethnic conflict in Georgia aimed to secure the continued presence of a large number of soldiers, arms and bases in the region. In 1992 the Transcaucasus region was home to 100,000 Russian military personnel and Georgia to various Russian controlled military bases. The Defence Ministry was not always in control of these poorly paid soldiers who often had divided loyalties. The outbreak of conflict in South Ossetia caused Russian commanders there and in North Ossetia to declare their intention to intervene on the side of the secessionists. This caused Russian President Boris Yeltsin to meet with the Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and to agree to a joint peace keeping force. This force under control of the Russian military effectively served to ensure that South Ossetia maintained its de facto independence.

The Russian military played an even greater role in Georgia's ethnic conflict in Abkhazia. With support from the Defence Ministry the Abkhaz secessionist movement received extensive support. Thousands of ex-Soviet mercenaries and volunteers from the Northern Caucasus joined the Abkhaz side. They were supplied with Russian arms given by, bought or stolen from by the Russian military. These included rockets, howitzers and latest model Soviet tanks. Russian military forces at Georgian request were subsequently deployed to protect vital transport sites and key facilities in Abkhazia. These forces attacked occasionally even with aircraft the Georgian forces. The Abkhazians thus felt confident enough to launch an offensive that managed to defeat the Georgian forces and capture the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi. The Russian military played a key role in allowing a people of 93,000 to defeat one of 3.8 million.

Russia's Foreign Minister has consistently seen a need for a stable and strong Georgia friendly to Russian interests. The ministry strongly backed Shevardnadze as Georgian leader to avoid his replacement by a truly anti-Russian leader. Additionally it feared leaving Georgia in a position of instability and political extremism, concerned it could spread to Russia itself. To achieve its aims the Foreign Ministry organised negotiations and sought limited United Nations involvement. Georgian stability was considered unfavourable to Russian interests at this time and thus peacemaking efforts were only half-hearted. These actions had little effect occurring as they did with the actions of local Russian military commanders who a long way from Moscow did not always see the need to listen to it.

The two different Russian policies reflected the chaotic and fragmented nature of Russian politics in the early 1990s. They did however provide a very effective carrot and stick approach that ensured Russia achieved the two ministries underlying motivation, a continued Russian presence in the region. Russia agreed to transfer Soviet arms to and to train the Georgian National Guard only in exchange for Georgia joining the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Georgia on the brink of collapse from twin ethnic conflicts and a civil war with forces loyal to ex-President Zviad Gamsakhurdia had no choice but to agree to this and other Russian demands. These demands included an indefinite Russian military presence and joint use all Georgia's ports and airfields. Russia was thus able to ensure a compliant regime in what was once one of the most staunchly anti-Russian ex-republics.

Russia's aggressive approach to Georgia very nearly ended in disaster for both countries. The Abkhaz offensive on Sukhumi coinciding as it did with a major push by Gamsakhurdia's forces in Western Georgia almost toppled Shevardnadze's regime. Shevardnadze had realised the necessity in the current environment for a continued Russian presence in Georgia and was doing his best to contain anti-Russian feeling in the country. Only a deployment of Russian troops and substantial military aid was able to stabilise the situation and Shevardnadze's regime. Whether this shows the skill in the execution of Russia's policy towards Georgia or mere good luck is hard to say. Either way Russia has not since pushed Georgia so close to complete internal collapse.

Russia's Policy on Ethnic Conflict in Georgia

Russia and Ethnic Conflict in Georgia (Part 2)
Russia and Ethnic Conflict in Georgia (Bibliography)