The political and military conflict in the Caucasus has reached an important milestone. Today, Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev signed two decrees recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The significance of this event is yet to be fully understood. However, it is clear that in some important sense, the Russian move is a point of no return — in Russia's relations with its neighbors, the West, and the rest of the world.
Medvedev's decision came on the heels of yesterday's frantic activity in the Russian parliament. First, the Federation Council held a unanimous vote asking the president to recognize the independence of the two break-away republics. A few hours later, Duma deputies – in unprecedented 447 to zero vote — supported the resolution of their colleagues from the upper chamber. All 4 Duma factions have voted for the resolution. The Duma speaker, Boris Gryzlov, has made it clear that the resolution had the backing of Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime-minister and the Chairman of United Russia, the leading Duma party.
It is not entirely clear whether signing of the decrees today was Medvedev's first choice. Many pundits convincingly argued that the recognition of South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's independence, however unavoidable in the long run, should not come this early. Instead, it could be used as a bargaining chip in Russia's negotiations with the West.
Yet, there is little doubt that, politically speaking, Medvedev had no choice. The alternative to not signing the decrees was an isolation at home, something his young presidency would not have survived.
There seem to be at least two reasons for Russia's speedy recognition of South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's independence. First, the independent status of the two republics — followed by inevitable bilateral treaties with Russia — would allow the latter to indefinitely keep troops in both places – something that the Russians, Ossetians, and Abkhazians all really want and something that any other turn of events would not guarantee.
Second, the cost of restoration of damages caused by Georgia's military offense in South Ossetia is amounting to an estimated $1 billion. While Western countries one after another express their willingness to underwrite the reconstruction of Georgia, it's implicitly agreed that the South Ossetian bill will be picked up by Russia alone. It's hardly surprising then that Russia does not want to spend this amount of money without firm assurance that the fruits of this generosity will not be later harvested by the Georgians.
Medvedev's decision is a deliberate slap in the face of the Bush administration — not a total surprise, given Medvedev's demonstrative lack of desire to have anything to do with the lame-duck American president. And his calculation that relations with Bush's successor will have to be built up from rock bottom anyway, is not totally unwarranted.
The future of Russia relations with Europe is another matter though. Initial reactions from European capitals have been predictably harsh, and Russia has obviously much to lose from spoiling relations with its major trade partners.
It is however conceivable that after the dust of initial outrage settles down, European leaders will recognize that in some perverted sense, Russia has done all heavy lifting in the conflict resolution. There is no more urge to argue whose interpretation of the six-point Sarkozy-Medvedev plan is correct; the plan is dead. There is no more reason to seriously discuss whether Georgia is ready to join NATO; with its territorial integrity in shambles, Georgia's NATO membership is a joke. There is no more need to squabble over which EU country will provide how many peacekeepers to patrol South Ossetian and the Abkhazian hills; Russian troops will do the job.
Ah, yes, there is also a Russia-NATO agreement on transit supply routes for the NATO contingent in Afghanistan. This agreement is still in place. For now…
Is it something the Kremlin is counting on?