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Recognition of South Ossetia: A Trump Card Played Too Early

I would count myself as one of those surprised by President Dmitry Medvedev’s fast-track decision to endorse the Duma’s non-binding resolution to officially recognize the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “Recognition” of independence is a rather inflexible political good, one that is difficult to retract or cancel as an incentive for leverage in negotiations with Washington and Europe, and one that gains Russia very little in terms of any geopolitical advantage. So why would Medvedev recognize these territories now, at the cost of such enormous damage to the country’s reputation and crashing the stock market yet again, when such a move gets him nothing? In the interests and defense of those Georgians who were given Russian passports? That argument seems highly unlikely, as does the farcical argument Moscow is trying to position the invasion, ex post facto, in nearly the exact language of the Balkan situation, citing warp-speed humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing (the Serbs, by the way, are going to be pretty upset that they’ve been abandoned). What is clear is that the Russians are not playing any kind of international diplomatic game here, but rather making decisions in a concerted effort to change the facts on the ground. The fact that Medvedev’s tone has changed so dramatically in recent weeks (the formerly eloquent anti-corruption law professor now calling the Georgian president a “moron” and taunting in the language of a silovik, not a modern politician) would lead one to believe that he is under tremendous pressure from the internal clan struggles to seize as much power and initiative as possible, and spearheading the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia buys him some time and some wiggle room to fend off the hawks. For some weeks now, Medvedev will be flying high on the winds of Russian nationalism, as the majority of the country (even those who get their news outside of state-controlled TV) believe in the righteousness of the invasion. Liberal columnist Alexei Pankin was even taunted into acquiescence by a friend for his initial even-handed treatment of the cause of war, who wrote to him: “In 1945, those Russian barbarians used unjustified force to savagely violate Germany’s territorial integrity, and they pushed its duly elected chancellor to suicide.” Yes, many Russian liberals are willing to believe that Saakashvili, of the minuscule Georgia with its extremely small army, actually had the ambitions of Hitler to take over Russia. If you’re not buying that one, there are plenty willing to paint the man as WMD-less version of Saddam Hussein. Let’s just say that there are so many assumptions on all sides of this conflict that are quite beyond belief. In my opinion, we are once again seeing Russia’s internal politics guide the decision making in its foreign policy, and the results for the country’s reputation and future relationships are disastrous. This is not to mention how little thought Moscow has seemed to put into how it will handle this extremely difficult precedent with its own separatist territories. Much much more on this to come later.