South Ossetia Kosovo Counterfactual Poll!

We haven’t used the poll function for a while.

So okay: the Russians say that they’re only recognizing South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence because the wicked, lawless West set a precedent with Kosovo. And at first glance, this seems plausible! After all, the Georgia crisis came just six months after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. South Ossetia and Abkhazia had previously made declarations of independence, but nobody — not even the Russians — had recognized them.

Kosovo, said Moscow, made the difference. And not just Moscow. Many commentators, including some who were sympathetic to the Kosovars, quickly agreed.


Here’s the thing: I haven’t seen one commentator discuss the counterfactual. That is, what if the Georgia crisis had blown up before Kosovo’s declaration of independence, instead of after. After all, it took nearly eight years for Kosovo to reach that point. It’s not hard to imagine it being delayed by six months.

So: imagine a universe where 2008 unfolds just as it did, except that there’s no Kosovar declaration of independence in February. And in August, there’s the same Georgia crisis. In this universe, what would Russia do? Would it not recognize the breakaway territories’ independence, because there was no precedent? Or would it recognize their independence, and set the precedent itself?

Long time readers of this blog can guess what I think. But counterfactuals are, in the end, matters of opinion. So let’s poll it!

[poll id=”27″]

And feel free to explain your answers in the comments.

12 thoughts on “South Ossetia Kosovo Counterfactual Poll!

  1. I wish the options were not so strongly worded, but I chose the first one. I’d certainly not say “never”, but I’d put the odds for “no recognition” at 3 to 1.

    Threatening to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia if Kosovo was recognised would seem like a better option to the Russian government and there is nothing stopping them from a later recognition if needed.

  2. Assuming Russia were to stay consistent with its commitment to sovereignty position then after the war with Georgia, it would maintain the two territories unrecognized, but in a state of frozen conflict.

    However, Russia’s calculus could have been altered after the NATO meeting in Bucharest where Georgia was promised membership in the “future” but whose MAP application was rejected.

    In this scenario, Kosovo is still not independent, but the priority has now become to show why Georgia is not a fitting NATO member. The provocation, counter-attack, and the subsequent recognition of the two territories place the possibility of Georgia settling its border disputes far away..eerr into the “future.”

  3. Douglas:

    Your poll is based on false premise.

    Moscow did not say that they were recognizing S.O. and Abkhazia because the West recognized Kosovo.

    Rather, Moscow recognized these two regions AFTER Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia because Moscow, correctly, believed that it would be impossible for the two regions to ever become part of Georgia.

    Moscow has stated that it would have preferred if the international community could have gotten together and hammered out some ground rules for break-away regions seeking independence BEFORE the West unilaterally recognized Kosovo’s independence.

    Thus, you should have another answer which would read:

    * Moscow would not have recognized South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence if Saakashvili had not attacked Tskinval but rather would have continued to push for a pledge of the non-use of force and a negotiated settlement.

  4. Rather, Moscow recognized these two regions AFTER Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia because Moscow, correctly, believed that it would be impossible for the two regions to ever become part of Georgia.

    Ah, the principled Russians! They will soon recognize Kosovo, right? We have plenty of tapes of what happened in Kosovo, no need to rely on second hand info like in Ossetia.

    Russians are Russians. Nuf’ said.

  5. Alban:

    No, not “Nuf’ said.”

    You obviously no nothing about Russia. If you did, you wouldn’t make asinine comments.

    Actually, Russia has been quite principled in this conflict with Georgia. It’s Saakashvili is the unstable aggressor who unilaterally shelled a bunch of sleeping civilians.

    Russia’s FIRST move was to convene a Security Counsel meeting asking for both sides to agree to a binding non-use of force agreement. Both Saak and Washington refused. Russia then whacked Saak hard as they were right to do.

    I remind you and other Russophobes out there that Russia is NOT expansionist. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union Russia has shrunk, not expanded. Russia has zero interest in attacking or overthrowing any countries whether they be on Russia’s borders or anywhere else around the world.

    You’re entitled not to like Russia on an emotional basis but you are not entitled to twisting the facts regarding Russia.

  6. They’d probably just make noise and counter-attack on the basis of protecting a closely-allied area, without recognizing their independence declarations when it would inevitably come.

  7. “Actually, Russia has been quite principled in this conflict”

    Hmm, if you’re so principle people, now it should be a time to recognise Kosovo. Just to be so principe to the end. 🙂

  8. I do honestly believe Russia would not have recognized the enclaves if not for the precedent. I agree with Doug (ignoring the intended sarcasm) that the West was pretty lawless and wicked at that. But once the rules were broken and almost everyone else just seemed to consent, it was ridiculous for Russia to cling to the old order.

  9. The suggested counterfactual ignores the possibility that the Kosovar declaration of independence may have been a prerequisite for the whole Georgian crisis – i.e., that the Kosovar declaration of independence and the potential Russian response made it absolutely necessary for Saakashvili to act before it was too late.

    Thus, the question “If Kosovo had not declared independence last February, what would Russia have done in the recent Georgia crisis?” makes no sense, because the default assumption should be that if Kosovo had not declared independence in the first place, there _would have been no Georgia crisis at all_.

    (Ha-ha, I can do this far better than your usual wingnuts.)

    That being said: Russia did play its own murky part in the escalation of the Caucasian crisis from February onwards, and in retrospect, it would seem that the escalation did accelerate at least somewhat after the Kosovar declaration of independence. The public statements of the Duma and the Russian government from February 2008 onwards are indicative, and it seems that they were proceeding in sync with the steady, but serious escalation of hostilities on the ground.

    So, right now, in retrospect, it would seem that the Kosovar declaration of independence did have an immediate impact on the Russian policy in Caucasus, thus contributing to the escalation and the final culmination of the crisis. Having a deliberately complicated historian’s view on these things, I find it rather difficult to imagine the South Ossetian war erupting in a similar fashion in a world where the Kosovar independence has not taken place at all. We’re living an era when these conflicts are inevitably internationalized.

    Some people might once again state that the war was launched by Saakashvili, and that he would have done so anyway. That would, in my opinion, be an overstatement; true, Saakashvili did take the decisive step, but at the time, he was nonetheless acting in reaction to the situation which had unfolded for six months. Obviously, in a timeline proposed by Douglas above, the situation might have very well been different.

    So, I have a feeling that this may not be the best possible counterfactual, given that we just don’t know all the details yet. Right now, this seems – to me – a bit like asking how the United States would have dealt with stagflation in a world where the Yom Kippur War would not have taken place.

    In short: the poll is anachronistic. I have to go with that undefined “other”-option.


    J. J.

  10. If you read the post carefully, you’ll notice I force this assumption.

    That said, I don’t see strong evidence that either party’s behavior was influenced by what happened with Kosovo in February.

    Doug M.

  11. At least when one looks at the rhetoric, the evidence is strong enough.

    After March 2008, the escalation was steady, and both the South Ossetians as well as Russians made continuous references to the Kosovo issue. Since the Russians had stated already before that they’d regard Kosovar independence as a message and act accordingly… well, it’s just an inductive conclusion that they would act as soon as they’d have their pretext.

    Of course, there was also another practical, more concrete matter that took place at the same time; the Georgian attempt to enter the NATO, which was probably an even more important signal to Russia.


    J. J.

  12. The Russians made Georgia a parody of the Western intervention in Kosovo. The recognition was just one example:
    – it started with the claims about genocide, the exaggerated death counts and the conclusion that an intervention was needed. This was exactly what we heared from the West during the Kosovo War.
    – the Russians called for the resignation of Saakashvili. Much like the West called for Milosevic’s head

    Unlike the West Russia didn’t have the luxury to wait 8 years. They needed an excuse to keep Western peacekeepers out, they needed a fast end so that the issue would not keep poisoning their relation with the West and unlike the West they didn’t have a sceptical domestic audience that needed to be convinced that “all options had been exhausted”.

    My guess is that the Georgians are lucky that Russia now had the option of recognition. Without it the Russians would have felt the need to punish the Georgians more in other ways. We may yet see it if the Georgians are so stupid to try another attack. The Russian retaliation will then be much more brutal.

    @Jussi Jalonen:
    I think you put too much importance on Kosovo. Since 1991 Georgia regularly tried to regain control over the whole or a part of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Saakashvili also “needed” to attack for electoral reasons. According to Der Spiegel the Georgian plan of attack on South Ossetia dated from 2006. The Russian policy before the war was mainly one of deterrence of an expected Georgian attack.,1518,574812,00.html,1518,578273,00.html

    Can you can elaborate on that “murky part” and those “public statements of the Duma and the Russian government” and why they contributed to the escalation? It is difficult to discuss in abstractions.

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