Since the Russian Federation sent tanks, troops, and planes slicing into Georgia, commentators have reached for a variety of historic parallels. 1968 and the Soviet Union snuffs out Prague Spring. 1939 and the Nazis thrust into Poland. 1938 and the Czechoslovaks are sacrificed to the unwillingness of democracies to confront evil. None of these supposed parallels catches the current situation. A better – but still imperfect – parallel is 1914, when an assassination in a remote corner of the world set larger and destructive events in motion. The trigger-event with outsize results this time was Georgia’s attempt with military force to reoccupy South Ossetia.
Of course, this is not 1914. Great Powers are not treaty-linked so that one event can start a whole chain of disasters. There is no prospect of a wider war. After a first wave of strong language on both sides, tempers have begun (slowly) to cool, even though the Russians are falling short of their pledge to withdraw from Georgia and have now recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. But there is still something in the parallel: the world of Europe and of its powers and other countries will not be the same. The implications will be lasting; the requirement for wise and temperate leadership on all sides is critical to contain the consequences of what has already happened.
As always, the post-mortems offer clear insights that could and should have been there in advance. At the local level, tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been slowly approaching the boiling point, but never so close as to energize the Western powers or the United Nations to do something serious about them. At the same time, the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had repeatedly stated his intention to reintegrate the two semi-breakaway provinces back into Georgia – as he had done successfully in May 2004 with Ajara, the Black Sea enclave on the Turkish border. And Russia had warned about what could happen if he tried.
At a larger level, many leaders and commentators in NATO countries, notably the United States, had pressed for admission of more countries to the alliance, notably Georgia and the other near-term contender bordering Russia, Ukraine. That followed logic of helping fledgling democracies, but it ignored a basic characteristic of NATO membership that was clearly missing for both these candidates: NATO is first and foremost about its guarantee that “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” If current allies are not prepared to give such a pledge, without reservation, then offers of membership must not be made and great care must be taken not to give a false impression. And NATO – again led by the United States – also forgot the basic principle of the Alliance’s post-cold war policies that efforts to increase any one nation’s security must also at least consider the potential impact on the security, real or perceived, of other nations.
All this happened, in fact, at the NATO summit in Bucharest last April. President George W. Bush was pressing to see Ukraine and Georgia advanced along the path to NATO membership through the development of a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Many other allies, notably Germany and France but backed by most of the others, resisted the move and had made their objections clear. Much commentary at the time focused on these countries’ concerns about Russia and some U.S. critics even hinted at the dark word from the 1930s: appeasement. Much less commentary noted the inherent problem of most allies’ unwillingness to provide security guarantees even at some point in the future.
At Bucharest, NATO reached what was represented as a compromise. MAP was to be postponed until later consideration in December 2008. In its place, the allies “agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.” Meant to be a throwaway line, a sop and a stopgap, that was in fact a profound statement, it was in effect the moment at which the allies declared that they were prepared to give their solemn security guarantees to these two countries – the essence of NATO membership. Most of the allies did not see it this way or at least believed that they would be able to push off any practical consequences of what they had done into the indefinite future.
But two people clearly took NATO at its word: one was Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, for whom – in the case of Georgia – this was NATO’s embracing a country that was by no stretch of the imagination important to the West in terms of preventing a future conflict in Europe. Its situation did not involve any of the uncertainties about the strategic status of countries in Europe’s heartland, uncertainties that had been proximate causes of the First and Second World Wars. From Putin’s perspective, this was a provocation, at least politically, an action of “disrespect” for Russia and its interests. And, it transpires, he was prepared to show the allies “who was boss” in the South Caucasus.
The other person who apparently took NATO at its word was Georgia’s president. Mikheil Saakashvili, who then acted as though he had license to act as he saw fit in South Ossetia, apparently in the belief that, faced with a fait accompli, the NATO allies would back him up. Tragically, he was proved wrong. In an effort at its Bucharest summit to push off a difficult issue and to avoid embarrassing the US president, NATO had helped set the scene for a gross miscalculation on the Georgian president’s part. The Russians were prepared for an excuse to act. Saakashvili recklessly give it to them.
At a larger level still, the Georgia crisis was produced by the failure of the NATO powers – led by the United States – to continue building on the promise contained in the former President George H.W. Bush’s historic vision of a “Europe whole and free and at peace.” For NATO, four objectives were key: to keep the US engaged as a European power; to make sure there would be no backsliding – however remote – from the grand reconciliation among the combatants engaged in the West European battlegrounds of World War I and II; to take Central Europe permanently off the diplomatic and strategic chessboard; and to engage Russia rather than treat it like a defeated power to be isolated, spurned or punished.
This agenda was followed rather well in the 1990s. Where the allies fell short was – in this author’s view – in the inadequacy of their efforts to engage Russia deeply in the global economy, in order to bind it to the West. Admitting it to the Group of Eight (G-8) “talk shop” was symbolically useful, but Russia is still being kept in the waiting room for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Admitting Russia should have been done many years ago as a matter of grand strategy regardless of whether the Russians had met the technical membership criteria.
Now, after a decade witnessing the rise of the Russian petro-economy, Kremlin leaders are less convinced of Russia’s need to draw upon economic relationships with the outside world – even though Russia, in reality, remains largely a rentier state, with all of the limitations that term implies. At the same time, the rise of Vladimir Putin and his ilk led to an effort to reimpose Moscow’s control over all of Russia, reduce the relative autonomy of different regions, gather the reins of power in his own hands to the degree possible, keep democratic developments under control and reduce the impact of outsiders on Russia’s development. An often-cited example of this last-named trend was the every-tighter restrictions placed on non-governmental organizations in Russia.
So, too, Putin has sought to reassert Russia’s role as a significant power, at least on the Russian periphery. How this is characterized depends on perspective: varying from “demanding respect for Russia’s legitimate interests and right of engagement in major regional developments” to “reassertion of its natural sphere of influence” to “starting the process of recreating the classic Russian empire.” The last-named is certainly reminiscent of what happened after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk stripped Ukraine from the Soviet Union in 1918: When the treaty was annulled after the war, it took Moscow only four years to re-absorb Ukraine into the Soviet empire.
Whichever interpretation best explains Russia’s role in the deterioration of relations, the West – particularly the United States – played its part. NATO agreed to create military bases, limited to be sure, in new allies Bulgaria and Romania, designed to facilitate access to areas of incipient turmoil farther east, now including Afghanistan. And the United States pressed for sites in Poland and the Czech Republic at which to base elements of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system designed to counter potential threats from Iran and, depending on the azimuth of an attack, from North Korea. None of these steps can conceivably be seen as posing any kind of military threat to Russia and Moscow knows it – although it has chosen to represent the contrary and also tried to use the ABM issue to split the allies by recalling the (false) parallel of Euro-missile deployments in the 1980s that led to mass demonstrations in many West European cities. This Russian tactic includes threats to reply in some fashion with military force if the ABMs are deployed at some point many years from now. At the same time, however, these Western military developments do seem to Russia as encroachment by NATO – more particularly, by the US – on territories increasingly close to its borders. Moscow has depicted them both as taking advantage of Russia when it had no capacity to resist – precisely the opposite of the dictum propounded by President George H.W. Bush – and as coming perilously close to violating the spirit if not the letter of a commitment in the1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that the alliance, as it took in new members, would engage in no “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.”
On the Western side, two events this year stoked the crisis of August, along with the troop build-up on the Russian side. Even before the Bucharest summit, the West blessed Kosovo’s independence in February. Much has been made in the US and elsewhere in the West that this was the “least worst” alternative for Kosovo and that it set no precedents. The Russians have disagreed, seeing in it not just a further taking advantage of their weakened state but as a valid parallel to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The differences are not so striking as to demonstrate that the Russians are entirely wrong. At the same time, the NATO-Russia Council, created to give Russia a special though limited voice at NATO Headquarters, had largely become an empty vessel, more because the Russians reduced their engagement than because of any NATO reluctance to continue some cooperation.
Overall, what has happened in recent years has been an unfortunate drifting from the original conception of NATO enlargement. It was conceived in the mid-1990s as part of an effort to move beyond the old power politics and spheres of influence in Europe, to a political and security system that could, over time, draw on the same developments in politics, economics, and social organization that had led the countries of Western Europe to abolish war as an instrument of their relations with one another – one of history’s small handful of truly positive achievements. But as time went on, there was too much nibbling at the edges of this concept, as noted above. At the same time, the West did not do enough to ensure that Russia was not pushed aside in the process; nor did it do enough to ensure that geopolitics would not ride on the back of valid and worthy efforts and thus undermine the vision of a lasting European security based on cooperation and inclusion rather than confrontation (however mild) and exclusion (however partial). For its own part, Russia was too slow – or too incapable – of understanding that moving beyond the world of geopolitics and the calculus of the zero-sum game would have significant benefits for Russia and both its security and its economic advance. To a considerable extent, therefore, the Russians under Vladimir Putin isolated themselves.
The crisis over Georgia has also sharpened some fault lines in the Western alliance. It was notable that the emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on August 19th produced so little in terms of common action or even firm language: “We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual [with Russia].” Along with agreement to set up a NATO-Georgia Commission, this achieved at least some measure of agreement. It also avoided the spectacle of an alliance ready to be split apart by Russian actions, possibly therefore becoming vulnerable to more bad behavior by Moscow. But it was clear that not all the allies saw developments the same way – and in the word “allies” can also be seen differences on the part of various members of the European Union.
In general, differences fall along the line that had been defined by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in an offhand comment, as “old” versus “new” Europe. For countries that had once been under the yoke of the Soviet Union and communism, Georgia is a fearful harbinger of things to come. For countries with none of that experience, dependence on Russian for natural gas looms larger; or, where that is not a factor, there is concern lest events in a distant part of the world, where the Georgian president had been part of the problem, will undercut longer-term efforts to forge some kind of positive, mutually-beneficial relationship with Russia. For its part, the United States falls more into the category of “new Europe,” certainly in terms of rhetoric – which, strikingly, has emanated from Democrats and Republicans in almost equal measure.
Today, therefore, the Georgia crisis needs to be seen not just in terms of what has happened in the Caucasus or even in terms of what now transpires there. And what needs to be done is more or less obvious, at least in terms of Russian troop withdrawals, the insertion of outside peacekeepers (EU or OSCE), and assertion of the sanctity of Georgia’s frontiers as a principle of sovereignty and pending the outcome of diplomacy, including about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Also, there needs to be a shoring-up of support for Georgia’s democratic development – as far from completion as it clearly is. In addition, there are obvious needs for large-scale humanitarian relief and for major economic reconstruction and investment, to demonstrate that the West – including the European Union – sees Georgia as a country with a proper and valid vocation to be part of Euro-Atlantic institutions. This needs to include assuring that Georgia will retain control of its major East-West highway and of the cross-Georgia pipelines that extend from Baku to Ceyhan (in Turkey) and Baku to Georgia’s port at Supsa. This economic engagement should also be offered to Abkhazia and South Ossetia – on the proviso that, whatever diplomacy’s outcome, they must remain formally independent of the Russian Federation.
What the West should not do is pour massive military aid into Georgia, beyond what is required to make good losses and to symbolize the same kinds of engagement that are generally provided to Partnership for Peace countries. To go beyond that level would risk creating the illusion that Georgia could defend itself or sending a message that allies see the military dimensions of the continuing crisis as more important than the diplomatic dimensions that now must emerge.
At the same time, the prospect of Georgia’s (and Ukraine’s) someday joining Euro-Atlantic institutions as full members, including the EU and NATO, needs to be held open. Indeed, while what NATO did at its Bucharest summit helped to create the crisis, now abandoning the possibility of NATO membership for Georgia – in theory as well as for the time being in practice – would send the wrong signal to Moscow about its ability to interfere in NATO’s sovereign decision-making. Whatever the cause, the Russians went much too far; in particular, they reminded the world of their inglorious past, as Russia and as the Soviet Union, when it comes to the treatment of near neighbors, especially weak near neighbors; and they at least have to understand that others cannot be entirely “buffaloed.” There is also Ukraine to think about, as well as watchful Central European peoples worried whether NATO will now overbalance in the Russians’ direction.
The extent of fears on the part of other “new” members of NATO can be seen in Poland’s immediate dropping of conditions it had been imposing – mostly financial compensation – on the deployment of US anti-ballistic missiles on its territory. Poland also asked for bilateral US guarantees to supplement those of NATO’s Article 5, arguing that NATO itself could not be relied upon to provide support in a (possible) hour of need. The US has rightly resisted this request, since to accommodate any one anxious ally in this way would cheapen NATO’s guarantees everywhere and set off a clamor for similar bilateral commitments and very likely move everyone in the direction of a new cold war.
The West certainly needs to step up the integration of all the societies of Central Europe and the Caucasus into the global economy and to buttress their domestic development.
This is not all that needs to be done. Indeed, it is now clear that the issue of Russia, where it fits within the broader scheme of things, and what to do about it has risen to become one of the top priorities for the next US administration, for the NATO alliance, and also for the European Union. Vladimir Putin has “sent a message” that the West must take more notice of Russia, and the point has been taken. But that does not mean that the West – along with its various national and institutional components – needs to accommodate Russia where its demands are excessive by any measure or where what it wants comes at the expense of the rights of others, in this case Georgia and, later on, countries like Ukraine. With respect to Georgia, itself, it must be “off limits” for any Russian efforts to depose its sitting president – however difficult for the West and less-than-democratic he has proved to be; similarly unacceptable must be any Russian efforts to “hold hostage” key Georgian economic assets, including the port at Poti.
Nor should the West be cowed into believing that somehow Russia has returned to the fray as a true great power, much less a superpower. Besides its oil and gas, it continues to have a second-rate economy. Its rate of economic innovation still falls behind almost all Western societies. Its military is still very much second-rate and not heading toward first-rate status very fast. Its population is falling at a faster rate than any other country in the developed world. And it is crowded along its Eastern frontier by “the new kid on the block,” China. Indeed, it was ironic that, while Russia was working to show its mettle in a tiny part of the world and finding it a bit rough going, China was showing off at the Olympics, as a society that creates more economic advance in a week than Russia could hope to achieve in a year or much, much longer. It is also a China with a huge and vigorous population that abuts the wide open spaces of Eastern Siberia, which are being steadily depopulated of Russians.
In short, this is not the early 1920s, when Lenin could shut the Soviet Union off from the outside world in pursuit of “Socialism in one country;” nor is it the late 1940s, when Stalin could spurn involvement for his fledging empire in the Marshall Plan in order to rebuild his shattered country and East European satellites on the basis of autarky and to try challenging the West in military power and industrial production – and in the end fail in one of history’s greatest collapses of a country or empire. Russia, including a Russia structured according to the desires of Vladimir Putin, needs the outside world; indeed, as much as anything, the lack of that connection is why the Soviet Union collapsed. And following what Russia has done in and to Georgia, countries and institutions in the West, however much they would like to have positive relations with Moscow, will find it politically hard to do so, at least anytime soon. For the next US president, in particular, that time could be a while in coming.
At the same time, the West, including the United States, NATO, and the European Union, cannot easily dismiss Russia as a potential partner. There is, of course, rising dependence on exports of Russian hydrocarbons: that has created dependencies that Moscow can exploit, but it has already been a spur to finding alternatives, even though that could take years. There are also issues of strategic and other forms of arms control, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (especially nuclear weapons), countering terrorism, prosecuting the conflict in Afghanistan (where trans-shipment of supplies through Russian territory is helpful to NATO), the future of the Middle East, and longer-range issues of the environment and, yes, climate change. Thus Russia is not the lone demandeur; there are some interests and objectives on each side in relations with the other. (One near-term casualty will almost certainly be any hope for continued Russian cooperation over Iran – a development that could prove a blessing in disguise for those who want the US to find a strategy for dealing with Iran that is not based solely on containment).
In the period just ahead, it will be important that the various nations and institutions of the West begin to craft a common set of policies toward Russia, even if getting the politics right will take some time – a process that can be hastened by a reduction in rhetoric and an increase in analysis. Under no circumstances, in the absence of future Russian behavior that makes such a course inescapable, should there be talk or preparation for a new cold war. The facts don’t justify it; only a bad psychological state or inability to let go of old habits of mind can take us there.
At the same time, the Western allies, flanked by the European Union, need to return to the basic premises of transformation they embraced following the cold war: engagement and not isolation; inclusion not exclusion; understanding of the legitimate political, economic, and security requirements of all countries in the region – without acceding to anyone’s purely nationalist definition of the adjective “legitimate;” and positive reciprocity to positive actions by Russia. When the time is right, the US, NATO, and the EU should each select a few areas of potential cooperation with Russia and test whether Moscow is prepared to follow suit.
In the final analysis, the West and its institutions need to concentrate on not making matters worse, through some feeling about the need to “punish” Russia or cut off potential avenues of future cooperation. The Western allies need to stick to their principles, notably the fostering of democratic development in European and other states, and keep the door open to new entrants to Euro-Atlantic institutions, including a path, in ways that can be appropriate, for Russia to enter these institutions. They need to make clear that what Russia now does regarding Georgia and also Ukraine will set patterns of possibilities – or lack of possibilities – for a long time to come. Above all, the West and its institutions need to promote and sustain their own cohesion. If they do these things, a waiting game may lead Russia in the right direction: to chose, finally, to try living in the 21st century, with all the opportunities the future can offer, or to look back to the 19th century and suffer the consequences of decreasing relevance. Russia now has much to prove – in its own self-interest and that of its potential partners in the outside world. It also has a lot to gain by making the right historic choices.
By Robert E. Hunter, senior advisor at the RAND Corporation. Former U.S. ambassador to NATO (1993-98). In 2002-06, he conducted a project in Georgia for the U.S. Department of State.
This article will appear in the Volume 9 Number 3 - Fall 2008 issue of European Affairs, the public policy journal of The European Institute.
This commentary originally appeared in European Affairs on August 28, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.