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Analysis: In Russia-Georgia Conflict, Balkan Shadows

Council on Foreign Relations

Updated August 13, 2008
Author: Robert McMahon

Circumstances in two separatist Georgian border regions—South Ossetia in the north and Abkhazia in the northwest—brought Russia and Georgia into open conflict (RFE/RL) this month. Though Russia announced an end to military attacks (WSJ) against Georgian forces on August 12, there remained reports (Reuters) of ongoing Russian military operations in Georgia. Beyond the immediate triggers, some analysts see two international developments in the past six months as major catalysts for Russia's biggest military campaign outside its borders since the fall of the Soviet Union. The conflict could have consequences far beyond Georgia's borders for the West and Russia.

The first catalyst was recognition of Kosovo's February declaration of independence (NYT) by the United States and European powers. Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president and now its powerful prime minister, had warned for years of the danger of recognizing Kosovo without Serbia's agreement. After it occurred, James Traub writes in the New York Times, "Mr. Putin responded by leveling a blow at America's Caucasus darling." Putin set in motion moves to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and stepped up patrols of Russian forces—ostensibly peacekeepers—in those regions. Russia expert Dmitri Simes of the Nixon Center told a CFR meeting late last year that Western recognition of Kosovo would have to be followed by a "quid pro quo in the Caucasus or where we are [is] a new era in international relations" between Russia and the West.

Now, just days into Russia's offensive, writes the Financial Times' Quentin Peel, the events in Georgia have become "Russia's Kosovo," including Russian portrayals of President Mikheil Saakashvili as a dangerous rogue in the mold of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. An analysis from the Russian news agency RIA Novosti described Saakashvili as unstable but a master propagandist.

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Copyright 2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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