Russia and Georgia: International Law and Norm Considerations.


Many insightful compositions have been written on the recent Russia-Georgia war.  Some analysts looked at what the war means in the context of the "great game."  Others examined what might have motivated Georgia to instigate such an impossible fight.  Another approach used was to analyze the influence of foreign countries on the conflict.  This particular composition will utilize a few basic applications of international law to briefly analyze the war.

A Summary of Events

On July 31st, Russian railroad troops completed work on repairing a strategic railroad in Georgia’s semi-autonomous region of Abkhazia.  Its completion would allow Russia to deploy military equipment and reinforcements to a key position located just outside Georgian artillery’s reach.  Georgian President and Columbia University-trained lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili and his advisors wanted to increase the pressure on Georgia’s separatist regions and bring them fully under their control.  They realized that they would have to do so soon before Russian reinforcements and equipment had the opportunity to arrive.  The Georgian military had been deploying their forces near the borders of its separatist regions since July, and Tbilisi was prepared to call for a large-scale attack.[1] 

On the night of August 1st, Georgian infantry soldiers and snipers attacked the north end of Tskhinvali, the capital of another semi-autonomous region of Georgia called South Ossetia.[2]  Georgian officials said they attacked because they claimed South Ossetian militias were shelling ethnic Georgian villages.[3]  The Georgians exchanged gunfire with Ossetian militia forces and following a two hour firefight, the Georgian Army shelled the area and then withdrew.   Over the next few days, Georgian forces began moving closer to the South Ossetian border for a definitive strike.  However, Georgian and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials both denied any military buildup was occurring.[4]  On August 6th, another battle occurred in South Ossetia and the Russian peacekeepers’ barracks were targeted.  According to Georgian officials, an intercepted phone call made by an Ossetian border guard at the Roki Tunnel[5] shows that Russian military vehicles and members of the 135th Motorized Rifle Regiment began crossing into Georgia just before 4 A.M. local time on August 7th.[6]  Russian officials stated that the soldiers were reservists for the peacekeeping mission that were put on alert after the Georgian attack on the Russian barracks.  Russia was allowed to deploy up to 300 additional peacekeepers in emergency situations.[7]

Meanwhile, fighting continued in South Ossetia.  After a night of attacks that claimed several lives, the Georgian Army resumed their artillery fire at daybreak on August 7th.  By this time, a third of Georgia’s military was mobilized and deployed to Gori.[8]  At 7:10 P.M. on the evening of August 7th, following an all-day battle between the Georgian Army and South Ossetian fighters, President Saakashvili declared a unilateral ceasefire.[9]  He publicly announced on television that the Georgian Army had been ordered to cease all hostilities.  In addition, President Saakashvili even offered South Ossetia unlimited autonomy within Georgia and stated that Russia would be allowed to enforce the agreement.[10]

However, while talking peace, President Saakashvili prepared for war.  Tanks and heavy weapons were moved to the South Ossetia border.[11]  At 10:35 P.M. on the night of August 7th, President Saakashvili violated his own ceasefire as the Georgian Army unilaterally attacked their fellow Georgian citizens in Tskhinvali.  The attack was somewhat buffered politically by the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing the following day because the eyes of the international press were focused there, and by the time many of them were fully aware of the full-scale war in Georgia, Russian tanks had already rolled in and air strikes were underway.  The Russian offensive was the first thing they saw.  President Saakashvili disseminated his own myopic version of events to the press by focusing only on the Russian forces that had crossed into Georgia and by presenting his nation as a helpless victim in the path of Russian invaders.  

Russia and its allies were largely unable to respond quickly in any political manner.  China’s preoccupation with the Olympic Games prevented them from responding to the crisis by backing Russia either politically and/or militarily.  Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and several other high-ranking Russian statesmen, were in Beijing for the opening festivities and to meet with other world leaders, including United States President George W. Bush.  In addition, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was on a cruise on the Volga River and Russia’s Minister of Defense, Anatoliy Serdyukov, was also on holiday.[12]  Their preoccupation allowed Georgia to publicly respond to the crisis first and disseminate their version of events. 

Apparently lost on the western press was the fact that it appears the Georgian Army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity by targeting civilian structures in Tskhinvali.  They targeted schools, hospitals, housing complexes, and even the city’s university with BM-21, 122mm, and 152mm mortar shells.  When the barrage was initiated, artillery shells began raining down on the town’s residents, who were sleeping in their homes.  Rockets were launched on the area shortly after.  Then, Georgian tanks rolled in alongside infantry and special forces, who encircled the town while the Georgian Air Force took flight for their first bombing runs.  The area quickly fell under siege.  South Ossetian militias and Russian peacekeepers engaged the Georgians.  Not long after the siege of Tskhinvali began, the Georgian Army also advanced on Abkhazia, which has a mutual defense pact with South Ossetia.  However, Abkhazian militias sucessfully repelled Georgian forces out of the Kodori Gorge.  

Russia’s 58th Army, which was deployed in North Ossetia to guard the entrance to the Roki Tunnel, was unprepared to advance on August 7th when the Georgian army attacked.  However, the Georgian forces were unable to advance to Roki Tunnel and cut off the Russian reinforcements in time.  They remained bogged down in Tskhinvali, which bought Russia additional time to react.  Russia eventually responded by firing SS-21 missiles at Borzhomi’s military bunkers at 7:30 A.M. on August 8th.  Russia then commenced airstrikes on Gori and other military targets shortly after.  At 11:00 A.M., thousands of Russian soldiers along with tanks, transport vehicles, and heavy weaponry crossed through the Roki Tunnel.[13]  Georgia sent in airstrikes to try and slow the  Russian advance.  Georgian officials later admitted to dropping Israeli-made M-85 cluster bombs near Roki Tunnel.[14]  Russian warships were deployed to the Black Sea, where at least one Georgian ship was sunk.  The Georgian armed forces, though trained and armed by the United States and Israel, did not really stand a chance against the large-scale Russian deployment and particularly their air superiority.  After the Russians pushed the Georgian army out of South Ossetia, they moved into Georgia Proper.  At that point, Ossetian militias looted and burned down Georgian homes in Tamarasheni, Kekhvi, Kvemo Achabeti (Nizhnie Achaveti), Zemo Achabeti (Verkhnie Achaveti), and Kurta.[15]

International Law and Norm Considerations

From a legal perspective, Georgia defended its attack on South Ossetia mainly by invoking the sacrosanct principle of sovereignty.   South Ossetia is still a legal part of the sovereign state of Georgia because it has not received diplomatic recognition from other sovereign states and/or international organizations like the United Nations (UN).  Georgian officials stated that it is their right to use force against separatist militias that threaten the sovereignty of the Georgian state, which is defined here as a monopoly of force and legal authority over an internationally-recognized geographic territory.[16]  Initial armed intervention to legitimately protect the peace of a sovereign nation is an internationally accepted legal norm articulated in Article 51 of the UN Charter.  Some might argue that Russia, by supporting the de facto administrations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia even before the war, violated Georgia’s territorial integrity.  Russia would likely counter this arguement by invoking Article 73, Section b of the UN Charter, which states that, "Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end: (b) to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement."

Georgia’s other argument is essentially that the Russian Army, by crossing into Georgian territory without permission and attacking Georgian state forces, committed an Act of Aggression as defined by United Nations (UN) General Assembly Resolution 3314 (1974) and also violated Article 2.4 in Chapter 1 of the UN Charter.[17]  President Saakashvili tried to reinforce these arguments to the international community by repeatedly claiming that Russia’s ultimate goal was to overthrow his government, not protect the Ossetians.[18]  Russia’s advance into Georgia Proper, as opposed to simply securing South Ossetia and halting their advance, was emphasized as evidence for his claim.  President Saakashvili also accused Russia (without providing evidence) of committing acts of ethnic cleansing, a war crime and crime against humanity.[19]  Finally, one could argue that Russia’s political influence within South

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