Some sane commentary is finally emerging in the wake of the Georgia crisis, which turns two weeks old tonight. The macho fulminations of neoconservative pundits seem to be dying down as the reality of the lack of viable options dawns on them. Russia has severely crippled Georgia’s military, is entrenching itself in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the status quo ante is becoming a more remote possibility with each passing day. If we were living in some alternate universe in which our military was not bogged down in two other conflicts and we were not averse to brinksmanship with a nuclear-armed power, we would still consider even a very localized shooting war with the Russians on former Georgian territory far too costly to contemplate. The Russians sussed this out a while back and have decided to call our bluff, leaving us feeling dazed, sheepish, even a bit stupid. Such are the wages of strategic blindness.
Thomas Friedman, in a particularly lucid op-ed in last Tuesday’s New York Times, identifies the roots of our folly in our insistence on expanding NATO to Russia’s very doorstep in the past decade and a half. Much as previous generations fretted about the eternal threat that a unified Germany posed to European stability, so the bright minds in the Clinton and Bush (filius) administrations imagined and feared a Russia that was in its very essence an aggressive power. They therefore sought to hem it in as tightly as possible while the West had the upper hand. In doing so, however, they never seriously counted on the possibility of Russia regaining the initiative to contest any of these developments—that is, they never seriously considered actually committing troops to member states’ defense. The mere fact of NATO’s existence, they figured, would act as a deterrent to Russian aggression, guaranteeing stability well into the future. Such thinking was a perfect recipe for the current disaster in the Caucasus.
Our involvement in the region, motivated in large part by a desire to free ourselves from energy dependence on the Middle East, started in earnest by the mid-1990s. In 1996, we encouraged the creation of GUAM, the grouping of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, as a strategic counterbalance to the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. By 1999, with the passage of the Silk Road Strategy Act, we had explicitly pledged to “foster stability in this region, which is vulnerable to political and economic pressures from the south, north, and east.” The push to admit Ukraine and Georgia into NATO is the logical conclusion of this line of thinking. NATO membership for these countries would, in and of itself, both stabilize the region and deter Russia from any mischief. What’s not to like?
Plenty, it turns out. “The humiliation that NATO expansion bred in Russia was critical in fueling Putin’s rise after Boris Yeltsin moved on,” writes Friedman. “And America’s addiction to oil helped push up energy prices to a level that gave Putin the power to act on that humiliation.” To say that this is eminently correct is not to buy into some clichéd “the chickens have come home to roost” argument about blowback; nor is it to argue that all NATO expansion, especially in Eastern Europe, was a bad idea. It is to criticize the myopic attitudes that got us into this current mess in the first place.
Some lessons we have learned in the past fortnight:
1) Membership in NATO does not deter aggression all by itself. Suppose we somehow had compelled France and Germany to acquiesce to fast-tracking Georgia’s membership in April. Further suppose that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili subsequently attempted to retake South Ossetia by force, in the process killing several Russian peacekeepers. Does anyone think Russia would not have responded? And given that the U.S. currently has little spare military capacity, could we really count on our under-spending, recalcitrant allies to take Russia on by themselves? An expanded NATO without the capacity to protect its own members is a paper tiger.
2) Geography matters. Georgia’s border with Russia is two to three times longer than its borders with any of its other neighbors. We shouldn’t kid ourselves: a determined Russia can overrun a force of virtually any size in Georgia. The only possible deterrent is a nuclear one. Are we prepared to play nuclear poker over a small country in the Caucasus?
3) Demography and ethnography matter. Russia has distributed Russian passports to Ossetes living in Georgia. Opponents of Russia have portrayed this as an underhanded move to further undermine Georgian claims to South Ossetia. Perhaps it is, but crying foul does not make it disappear. And there’s precious little we can do about it. Indeed, it is a chilling reminder of the mess that awaits us should Russia choose to stir the cauldron in the Ukraine.
4) Precedents and consistency matter… Some analysts have cited the recognition of Kosovo’s independence as a dangerous precedent that encouraged Russia to champion South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s independence. For these analysts to be correct, one must first believe that Russia has been devoted to upholding consistent norms in international relations, or that, absent the Kosovo precedent, Russia would not have attempted to destabilize Georgia sooner or later. Of course, neither of those cases are true, but we still sound like hypocrites when we loudly champion Georgian territorial integrity purely on the grounds of principle.
5) …but strategy matters more. Nevertheless, in recognizing Kosovo we may have backed into a strategic winner largely unawares. The Russians were unwilling and unable to force the Kosovo issue with the West, suddenly leaving their Serbian brethren without a powerful patron. The subsequent parliamentary elections in Serbia brought slim majorities to the pro-Western parties, who have since arrested Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic and extradited him to The Hague. Serbia’s Western turn is a glimmer of hope in the chronically unstable Balkans and an overall win for Europe.
The road forward is fraught with difficulty. People with contacts in the Russian diplomatic corps seem to think that a productive, cooperative relationship is still possible. But their optimism may be unwarranted, as the likelihood of us stumbling into it seems desperately small, if it exists at all. The fact remains that in its near-abroad—the Caspian, the Caucasus, Belarus and most ominously in the Ukraine—Russia holds almost all the winning cards. Whatever we do, we should think it over ten times before we do it, but then do it decisively as we did in Kosovo. An intelligent and wily foreign policy, one which profoundly internalizes the limits of our reach, yet which at the same time lays down credible and defensible red lines for Russia, is the only way we’ll avoid repeating the debacle we’ve suffered in Georgia.
-Damir Marusic is editor of Doublethink Online and associate publisher of The American Interest.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Hadley Heath