Russia Scholar: South Ossetia Shows Return of Russia as a Major Power

Aug. 19, 2008 — As a former professor in Moscow who taught international relations to Soviet diplomats from 1983 to 1992, Yuri Urbanovich knows a bit about Russian politics. But as a native of the then-Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Georgia) from birth until age 17, Urbanovich — who teaches a course at the University of Virginia on the politics of the Caucasus region — also understands the Georgian side of its most recent conflict with Russia, including how history has intertwined the two nations for over two centuries.

He sees the recent Russian invasion of Georgia as a demonstration of Russia's return to being a regional superpower, something to which the U.S. media and public are no longer accustomed.

"We treated Russia for a long time as a defeated nation and many of Russia's natural interests and concerns were not taken into account," Urbanovich said. "In the last seven or eight years, Russia was getting stronger ... and began to defend its national interests more vigorously.

"This is another paradigm in our relations with Russia that hasn't yet been accepted — that Russia is a significant player in the international arena."

Urbanovich left Moscow in 1992 to teach at U.Va. He returned to Georgia in 1995 as a member of a Carter Center delegation that visited the war-torn separatist region of Abkhazia, which, like South Ossetia, has seen ethnically charged conflict continue in varying intensities since Georgia's 1991 separation from the Soviet Union. Fighting in the early 1990s killed hundreds in South Ossetia and created thousands of refugees, but things were worse in Abkhazia, where thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands became refugees.

In Abkhazia, Urbanovich witnessed firsthand the human tragedies that result from such conflicts.

"I was very depressed in Abkhazia, because it was inconceivable for me to imagine that Georgians and Abkhazians would be killing each other," he said. "My family had spent almost every summer in Abkhazia — a beautiful place, like California or Florida in this country, but on the Black Sea. Meeting internally displaced people who had fled from Abkhazia — they had lost everything, their homes, identities, and hope in the future — my heart was bleeding."

In Urbanovich's view of the latest conflict, Russia was justified in invading the South Ossetia separatist region of Georgia after Georgian troops leveled the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on Aug.  8, because Russia was leading peacekeeping operations in the area as mandated by a 1992 arrangement agreed to by Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "authorized an attack that led to considerable civilian casualties," Urbanovich said.

The independence movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia present a challenge to regional stability on Russia's border, noted Urbanovich, similar to how the Kurdish independence movement threatens the relative peace and stability of Turkey.

"The Russians were carefully watching this volatile region and ready to intervene in case of exactly this type of development," he said. "Put yourself in [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev's shoes. What would a regional superpower do?"

An increased presence of international observers in the region will help stabilize the situation and should prevent another flare-up, Urbanovich said. But a real solution to the situation will require leadership from a coalition of major powers in partnership with Russia.

"Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part," he said, "but this crisis gives a good chance for Russia, the U.S. and Europe to restore a constructive relationship and expand their cooperation, rather than accuse each other of wrongdoings. That will depend on the wisdom of their leaders."

However, Russia and America have two big reasons to cooperate, Urbanovich noted: the 21st century global challenges of nuclear non-proliferation and international terrorism.