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Georgia’s ‘mini war’ may be over, but its implications will reverberate for years to come. Russian-Western relations will nosedive, and the East Europeans will push both NATO and the EU into adopting more hostile policies towards Russia. The US will also start to take the Russian challenge more seriously. A new ‘Cold War’ is not inevitable, but a hostile climate in East-West relations is now a certainty.
Those who live through historic events are often initially unaware of their true significance; this only becomes clear months or even years thereafter. Such may be the case with this week’s ‘mini-war’ between Russia and Georgia. The fighting lasted only five days. Many perished, but the bloodshed was confined to the southern edge of Europe, and the tragedy is still small in comparison to the carnage of the last century. Nevertheless, the strategic consequences remain grave. For the first time in decades, the Russian military has crossed an international border, determined to avenge past humiliations and restore Russia’s pride. Whatever they think of Georgia, Western governments are now compelled to respond to Russia’s challenge. The old order created after the demise of the Soviet Union – a period during which Russia and the West spoke of a ‘partnerships’ – is, therefore, over. Yet nobody has any positive idea about what may replace it.
The most immediate task is to make sure that fighting does not resume. For the Russians are still deep inside Georgian territory, and reports are coming in, indicating that their military operations are not entirely over. A much more worrying development could be the presence of South Ossetian ‘irregulars’, bands of marauders who could be allowed to continue with violence against Georgians outside the confines of their enclave, supposedly without Russia’s knowledge. So, the consolidation of what is essentially just a ceasefire remains a top priority.
But then what? The Europeans have offered to negotiate a Russian withdrawal, to be followed by the introduction of international peacekeepers. There are also initial indications that French President Nicolas Sarkozy – acting on behalf of the EU – may have secured Russian support for a wider mediation effort. But all this remains fairly irrelevant for, having achieved its objective of protecting pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia, Moscow is now unlikely to withdraw. So, the scene is set for another insoluble European problem: nobody will officially recognise Georgia’s division, but the country will nevertheless remain divided.
That, in itself, should not be a disaster: after all, Europe already has to contend with similar situations in the Balkans, and in Moldova, another former Soviet republic where a Russian minority demands independence and operates an enclave which, to all intents and purposes, is very similar to Abkhazia and South Ossetia on Georgian territory. However, the West’s security dilemmas are only beginning.
In the weeks to come, a bitter dispute is likely to erupt over who should be blamed for the present debacle. Accusing fingers are already pointing at the US; the Russian authorities have openly repeated the accusation. And quite a few European leaders suspect that, had it not been for America’s sponsorship of that country (which included a recent offer to admit it into NATO) President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia would have never launched his reckless military adventure against Russia.
The accusation is probably far-fetched. For, although the US has trained and equipped the Georgian military, there is no evidence that Washington either encouraged or wanted the showdown. US President George W Bush was in Beijing when the crisis erupted, and his administration was genuinely surprised by what followed: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice placed no less than ninety phone calls to her Russian counterparts during the last weekend alone (we have a separate analysis piece on this website about the US reaction). The true explanation is probably much simpler: Georgia took Washington’s support for granted and assumed that it could do what it wanted. It is a familiar experience for US diplomats, no different from Israel’s regular behaviour.
Ultimately, however, the debate about who is ‘responsible’ for the disaster remains irrelevant. Few Europeans respect Georgian President Saakashvili: they never bought into the US argument that he is a ‘model democrat’. But Europe is now stuck with Mr Saakashvili for, if he is overthrown – a possible scenario given his disastrous military defeat – Russian influence will grow in the region. The Europeans are also stuck with the promise to admit Georgia into the NATO, for the same reason: although nobody can see Georgia actually becoming a member of the Alliance, nobody can abandon this project without appearing to be caving in to Russia. It is usually forgotten that, although Georgia was not admitted into NATO at the Alliance’s Bucharest summit in April, the commitment to invite Georgia to join was made; only the timing is now, supposedly, in question. So, the Europeans will tweak the discussion and avoid this ‘hot potato’ when NATO defence ministers meet in December, but they will not be able to drop it.
Ultimately, the problem for the West is not just to avoid further loss of face, but the internal dynamics of today’s Europe. While big Western nations such as France, Germany or Britain may be tempted to minimise the significance of the Georgian episode, the former communist countries of Eastern Europe – fearful of any revival in Russia’s power - are certain to demand tougher measures. For over a decade, NATO and the European Union have claimed that they are not anti-Russian organisations. NATO refused to establish permanent military bases in Eastern Europe, and EU trade with Russia flourished. However, it is now impossible to persuade the East Europeans that a Russian threat is remote: the television footage from Georgia put paid to that. And it will be difficult for the EU to continue negotiating a new ‘partnership and co-operation’ agreement with Russia, as though nothing had happened. UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband has already hinted that the issue will be discussed in early September, when he and his colleagues meet again within the EU framework. The bet is that, at the very least, the discussions will be frozen. The East Europeans are often regarded by their Western counterparts as too ‘neurotic’ about Russia and too difficult for their own good. Nevertheless, altogether, the East Europeans account to roughly 40 per cent of the voting power in both NATO and the EU and they are unlikely to ignore the problem of Russia now.
The usual argument for ‘business as usual’ is that Europe remains dependent on Russian deliveries of oil and gas and cannot, therefore, risk annoying Moscow. But Europe was also dependent on Russian energy during the Cold War, yet this did not prevent a persistent military confrontation. And, besides, the Russians are equally dependent on Europe: Moscow cannot quickly divert its oil and gas pipelines – most of which flow to European markets – even if it wanted to. True, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can turn off the taps, as he has done immediately after Ukraine held free elections and, more recently, when the Czech Republic signed its missile defence deal with the US. Yet the more Moscow does this, the more it will invite a strong response from Europe. It may be that, over time, Russia will divert its energy exports to China or Japan, although Moscow has until now shown no intention of doing so. Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future, Russia and Europe are tied on energy issues with an umbilical cord.
Sooner or later contingency plans for reinforcing Eastern Europe in case of another crisis will have to be put in place; the East Europeans will demand nothing less. And new military equipment will have to be pre-positioned nearer Russia’s borders. The US will also have to rethink its approach to Russia if only because, after its momentary diplomatic defeat in Georgia, America has to prove to its smaller European allies that it will not allow this to happen again. The US military, which until now has tended to dismiss Russia’s armed forces as a spent force, will now monitor its activities with greater care. Moreover it is significant that both candidates in the forthcoming US presidential election are now demanding a more ‘robust’ anti-Russian approach.
Of course, the possibility exists that both sides draw back from the brink. Having humbled Georgia, the Russians could revert to a more co-operative stance. And, after a short period in deep freeze, links between Russia and the West could warm up again.
Yet the likelihood of this happening remains, sadly, pretty small. The Russians regard the Georgian episode as merely the start of a sustained campaign to restore their country’s sphere of influence in Europe. From Moscow’s perspective, the key objective is control over Ukraine, the biggest of the former Soviet republics, a country which also contains millions of ethnic Russian minorities. Crushing Georgia is meant to warn off Ukraine from repeating Georgia’s example. But neither Europe nor the US are prepared to respect Russia’s sphere of influence, and especially not in Ukraine.
So, the stage is set for a confrontation, as a new curtain starts dividing Europe. That’s not what the West wanted. But that’s what the world will get.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.