A U.S.-UN History Lesson in Georgia

(The following was originally written in August 2008.)

Commentators looking to explain the recent Russo-Georgian conflict by analyzing American foreign policy have found no dearth of candidate provocations. America’s support for Georgian membership in NATO, its recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and its open planning to install missile defense programs in Eastern Europe all likely contributed to Russia’s willingness to exert its influence in the region by force. By and large, however, these speculations have focused on the proximate causes of the past few months. The most significant American contribution to instability in Georgia, however, may actually have occurred some 15 years ago–and its story provides more resounding lessons for U.S.-UN policy than it does for U.S.-Russia relations.For a very tense decade and a half, peacekeepers in Georgia have consisted not of international personnel, but of Russian, Georgian, and, in one of the conflict regions, Ossetian, troops. Any casual observer would recognize this scenario as a sure recipe for disaster–why, in a dispute involving Russia and Georgia, have Russian and Georgian peacekeepers been entrusted to maintain a neutral presence? More specifically, why have the only UN peacekeepers in the region been a relatively bare contingent of 150 monitors and police, limited to just one of the conflict areas? The answer, in short, points the finger squarely at the United States–and punctuates the danger of developing a foreign policy with little concern of how it may play out in the future.

Flash back to the early 1990’s. As the Soviet Union comes apart, various territories on the periphery shed their garb of “Soviet Socialist Republics” and become independent countries. The old U.S.S.R. had included a dizzying mix of nationalities, but so too do some of these new states. The Republic of Georgia was one such pocket of heterogeneity, and even before its declaration of independence in 1991, partisans of two dissatisfied sub-regions–the now familiar Abkhazia and South Ossetia–begin to clamor for their own autonomy. Fighting breaks out, and the conflict risks igniting a larger conflagration.

To stem the violence, Russia, not without interests of its own in the region, leans on Georgia to sign peace agreements with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The ceasefire with the former falters, and, after a period of difficult negotiations, the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) is deployed to Abkhazia, but with only 136 unarmed military observers and limited to a monitoring role. Peacekeepers in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are drawn not from the UN, but from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the body created out of the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution. In practice, this means that Georgians, Ossetians, and Russians, with very little neutral oversight, will be supervising their own peace accord. It is not insignificant that the recent war began not in Abkhazia, where there was at least some neutral UN presence, but in South Ossetia, where there was none. Moreover, because the agreements designated its troops as “peacekeepers,” Russia, employing logic used, ironically, by NATO forces in Kosovo in 1999, has interpreted this as a license to attack not just sites in the disputed regions, but also in Georgia proper, ostensibly to hamper Georgia’s war-fighting abilities.

According to the well-respected Security Council Report, Russia, in the Security Council’s discussions in 1993-1994, had been willing to accede to a more expansive UN peacekeeping presence in Abkhazia, but had faced opposition from the United States. Why would the U.S. object to sending neutral UN peacekeepers to prevent greater violence and instability in a former Soviet republic? For one, while the U.S. vigorously championed the independence of, say, the new Baltic states, its support for that of the Caucasian republics was, due mostly to a quirk in the history of their boundaries, significantly more muted. Instead, the U.S. at the time regarded their situation as more of a domestic Soviet concern. This is only the beginning of the story, however, as it was a misguided and myopic policy toward the United Nations that most accounted for the United States’ reluctance to deploy a larger peacekeeping force to Georgia.

One justification given for opposing UN deployment was financial. In 1993, UN peacekeeping had reached a peak cost of $3 billion, covering 14 missions across the world, and the U.S. was facing a particularly tight budget period in the early 90’s. At the same time, the fallout from one particularly dramatic series of events greatly impacted U.S. policy toward UN peacekeeping overall. In October, amidst the debates over UNOMIG’s mandate and redeployment, 18 U.S. Army Rangers, operating in support of–but, importantly, not under the orders of–a UN mission in Somalia, were killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident. The United States soon pulled its troops out of Somalia, and, though the UN was in no way responsible, the lessons rashly assumed from this disaster eventually crystallized into an unfortunate cooling of American support for UN peacekeeping missions.

While no one can really say whether a stronger contingent of neutral UN peacekeepers would have been able to mitigate the war in the Caucasus, it seems clear that relying on troops from countries at war with one another to maintain peace was clearly not the most prescient solution. It is not too late, however, to take away the right lessons from what happened 15 years ago. Opposing UN peacekeeping for expedient political concerns may at times seem appealing in the short-term, but, as their 60-year history makes clear, UN “blue helmets” are an essential tool in maintaining global peace and security over the long-term–one that, when considering the alternatives, is always a bargain.