Discussing the ‘Unplanned Ossetia War’ with Professor Schneider

August 15, 2008 Updated: October 2, 2015
A truck loaded with Georgian displaced people passes in front of a Georgian army position 45km from the capital, Tibilisi. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
A truck loaded with Georgian displaced people passes in front of a Georgian army position 45km from the capital, Tibilisi. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

The German Epoch Times interviewed Dr. Eberhard Schneider, considered to be one of the most recognized Russia-Eastern Europe experts. His insights are revealing.

Dr. Schneider discussed what precipitated the current conflict between Georgia and Russia. “Those were the vigilantes in Southeast Ossetia who wanted to prevent the long ago planned dialogue last Thursday between representatives of Georgia and Southeast Ossetia. At the last moment, Ossetia backed out. Vigilantes then shot at Georgian villages surrounding the Southeast Ossetia capital of Zchinvali. Police officers and civilians died. The Georgian military returned fire.

“Georgia's president Saakashvili stated during a TV program that the Georgia side must not return fire, because he does not wish to undertake any action that might cause the rest of the world to view him as the aggressor. He had previously stated on TV to be prepared for any kind of Southeast Ossetia autonomy. The military activities took on a momentum of their own and escalated. As far as I can tell, neither the Russians nor the Georgians had planned this war.”

Regarding what would have been the consequences if the dialogue had it taken place,

Dr. Schneider stated, “It could have been the beginning of a series of dialogues that would have led to resolving the Southeast Ossetia conflict, but that was not in the interest of Southeast Ossetia politicians. That place is a dark hole in the order of the state. Southeast Ossetia is involved in drug and weapons running, and perhaps other ventures, too. The local politicians make huge sums of money from these dealings, and perhaps also certain people in Moscow that are close to the Silowiki, the power holders. Rumor has it that Southeast Ossetia's government chief Morosov, has ties to the Russian mafia. It is noteworthy that any merchandise brought into Southeast Ossetia through the Rok Tunnel is subject to a mere 3 percent customs fee. When goods arrive via the normal Georgian border, the fee is 25 percent.”

Schneider indicated there was nothing concrete about the identity of the vigilantes. “My assumption is this: The Southeast Ossetian (SEO) leadership precipitated this. They wished to bind Russia much stronger to Southeast Ossetia. Russia had not recognized the Republic of Southeast Ossetia and refused to integrate that area into their political system. SEO had speculated that Russia must react, because since 2006 it had issued Russian passports to 80 percent of SEO's citizens. According to the latest Russian laws, Russia is compelled to protect all Russian citizens, inside and outside the country. Ossetians, though, are not Russians, but by heritage Iranians.”

It seems to be the SEO politicians’ goal to have permanent Russian troops stationed in their area, so that Georgian troops would no longer invade. They were smart enough to realize that Russia would not sit idly by, but would have to intervene if Georgian military attacked the SEO leadership, which then leads to civilian casualties. Absent that, Russia would have been accused of her inability to protect her own citizens. It could have been that the Georgian side had planned to block the Ro Tunnel. It connects SEO with Northeast Ossetia and is the only route south. Had such military action happened, they could have prevented Russian tanks from invading SEO. Georgian troops were unable to advance to the border between SEO and the Northeast, between Georgia and Russia.

As for rumors that the Russian military were one step ahead, he stated, “The Georgia troops were unable to push through to the border between South and North Osssetia, which is between Georgia and Russia.”

An obvious concern is whether Russia is motivated to integrate Southeast Ossetia. Dr. Schneider rehearsed that when still president, “Putin had declared during a press conference last fall, concerning Ossetia and Abchasia, that the human principles of two autonomous peoples are at odds. One is the right to vote, and the other is that the borders cannot be moved. And so far, Russia has avoided taking the step to assimilate this quasi-republic. Once one begins to change borders, unless it is done peaceably, unlike during the dilemma with former Czechoslovakia, it becomes a dangerous undertaking, perhaps giving other Russian republics ideas to take similar steps. So far, Russia has categorically denied independence to Chechnya.”

“Another thought might be important: Russia is presently busy destroying all militarily potentially NATO-useful installations in Georgia, should Georgia one day join the alliance. This could be seen as a warning to the Ukraine, another potential candidate to join NATO. But that should not be interpreted as me saying Russia will attack the Ukraine.”

He also mentioned, “The UN appears to be completely helpless. Nothing else could be expected as Russia has veto rights in the UN Security Council. Therefore, no resolution was voted in. The only ones who might be able to intervene are the EU and perhaps, but only very limited, the OSZE [Organiation for Security and Co-operation in Europe].”

Responding the question of what other options are available for the EU to assist in this situation, Dr. Schneider said, “The only option for the EU would be a diplomatic approach, which is happening with the efforts of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner who is traveling to Moscow and Tbilisi. He is chief of the EU's advisors.

“German foreign Minister Steinmeier's telephone conversations with his Russian counterpart, Sergej Lawrow and Georgian counterpart accomplished a first – to telephone each other. Germany holds the leadership position for the UN Abchasian Friendship Group. Mr. Steinmeier had traveled to the region and to Moscow last July in this capacity, but his arbitration attempts failed.”

Regarding reports that the United States has accused Russia of wanting a change of regime in Georgia, Dr. Schneider concurred: “Moscow has had plans in place for a change of the regime in Tbilisi for the past year and a half.

According to Schneider, the Georgian president has significant support from his own people. “This war led to the opposition ‘laying down their arms’ and stopped critique of the president, shifting the focus, and united them behind the leadership amid concerns for the dangers the nation might face. This war made it possible for the president to unmask the Russian troops not as "peacemakers," as they call themselves—because they are not neutral, something Saakashvili had always maintained.  A second consideration: this conflict has drawn international attention, something the president had always wanted to have happen anyway, but he had never found enough support in the West.

Dr. Schneider stated: “China had always sided with Russia in international incidents and disputes, but for this event I have no idea what the Chinese mindset is. I don't even know if China commented.

Schneider also noted, “One might draw an analogy based on the timing [Olympics], everything happening during the games, but it might just be coincidence. Others insist that this was planned exactly like this, because the attention of the whole world is focused on Beijing and has scant interest for anything happening in the Caucasus. But this argument is not convincing.”

A hot topic is the response from the United States which has criticized Russia and declared these military actions against Georgia unsustainable, threatening U.S. and Russian relations. Regarding the possible consequences, Schneider revealed that “American troops are stationed with Georgian troops in military barracks in Georgia. It could have happened that Russian bombs would have killed or wounded American GIs in Georgian barracks. Relations between the U.S. and Russia are not particularly rosy at present anyway. It is entirely probable that NATO will not ratify the amended agreement about conventional forces in Europe (KSE). In all likelihood, there won't be a follow up agreement to the START I Treaty that expires next year.

Professor E Schneider (courtesy of Professor Schneider)
Professor E Schneider (courtesy of Professor Schneider)

“Chechnya will see the establishment of the American anti-missile radar system, and Poland or Lithuania will house the relevant missiles. Furthermore, I assume the Ukrainian population will change their minds about NATO. So far, a mere 15% of the population was in favor of joining NATO. I would imagine the percentages have risen and NATO would conditionally be ready to admit the Ukraine.

“Perhaps one additional aspect: Georgia and the Ukraine are connected through the GUAM Agreement. The special administrator for Ukraine president Viktor Jutshenko had already declared the Ukraine to be observant of goings-on in Georgia and ready, willing and able to give immediate humanitarian aid when necessary and people are mulling over if military aid is warranted.”

“The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry had further stated the Ukrainian nation would block its military harbor for use by the Russian Black Sea warships that have been stationed in the Crimea harbor of Sevastopol, since it departed for Georgia. This would take effect had the Russian ships fired on Georgia prior to their return.”

ET Reporter: How do you view economic consequences for Germany?

The economic ripples were also addressed by Dr. Schneider: “The most crucial consequences might be the oil pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Cayhan, the only Eastern European pipeline that runs outside of Russia and brings oil from Kazahakstan to Europe. Should it be damaged, supplies will stagnate. The war is the reason for escalating oil prices. But oil sales also increase Russian profits.”

As for a resolution of the conflict, Dr. Schneider responded, “I can easily visualize a simple resolution: SEO and Abchasien remain parts of the Georgian nation, but belong economically to Russia. The Ruble would be the legitimate currency, as it already is, and Russian enterprises could invest there. SEO as well as Abchasien would actually belong to Russia but would only formally remain part of the Georgian states. This means that people would adhere to the established European principles that the borders could not shift, unless by treaty. Thus Georgia could save face.” As for a quick resolution, there is “Not a high probability right now.”

As for who will play a deciding role, Schneider admitted that, “This idea originated with a Russian emissary whom I met while in St. Petersburg the beginning of June. Such a compromise cannot be reached at present. Some time will have to pass. For the moment Russia will remain as an occupying force in SEO and in Abchasien, because it seems virtually impossible to encourage the Russian occupation forces to leave. They would have to be replaced by international peacekeepers. And then the question arises – from which country?”

In closing, Schneider responded as to whether Germany would send troops. “I don't know. They are already heavily engaged in Afghanistan, as well as in other missions under the auspices of the European Union. I rather see European Union military involvement.”

Dr. Eberhard Schneider, chief editor of "Current Internal Russian News" (Russland intern actuell) and professor in political theory at the Siegen University. He is a 30-year veteran of economic and political analyses concerning Russian topics and Ukrainian internal and foreign politics. He was an analyst at "the Deutschen Institut fuer International Politik und Sicherheit" (German Institute for International Politics and International Affairs), and belongs to Germany's policy making network. Professor Schneider had held a number of positions at German Universities and think-tanks and is the author of several publications. He is one of the most recognized Russia-Eastern Europe experts.

Original German Article

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Maria Zheng
Maria Zheng