Thursday, August 28, 2008

Forgotten Virtues: Prudence, Foresight and Non-Alignment in the Post-Soviet Space

And so, things have come to a head in Georgia. For months, South Ossetia had been the scene of low-intensity warfare, with regular exchanges of fire from both sides blurring the precise points at which scuffles turned into battles, and battles into full-scale war. There is little doubt, however, that this confrontation was largely the result of a major miscalculation on Georgia’s part: its surprise attack on Tskhinvali, based on the vain hope that Russia would step back from the brink and defer to Tbilisi’s strong links with the West, could be described as one of the greatest blunders in modern international political history. The fact that the Russians and Ossetians had made numerous provocations in the weeks and months before the assault does not imply Sahakashvili was right to naively walk into the trap which they had ingeniously sprung. The Georgian president had clearly not read or understood his Thucydides – small nations with large enemies must know their place in the world.

One thing is clear, however: this conflict is about more than Georgia and South Ossetia. It is the first major confrontation, by proxy, between the West and a re-assertive Russia. As such, it is not just the result of miscalculations made in Tbilisi in 2008, but the logical conclusion to a series of mistakes and misperceptions in Western capitals – and in Washington, in particular. This is not just a tale of a small country bravely (but somewhat hopelessly) confronting a Great Power on its own – it is also the story of the amateurish, ideologised and bungling approach to international politics that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration since its coming to power. In the longer term, it is the result of a dangerous disregard for international law, and the application of double standards in conflicts throughout the world by the West – with Kosovo as only the most striking example. The West should have known that such law-bending was bound to blow up in its face in the longer term. And now it has – in Georgia.

The first miscalculation was intimately connected with the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, designed to circumvent Russia as the main conduit for Caspian oil to Europe and beyond. For this circumvention to be entirely effective, Georgia had to be coaxed from Russian influence towards a firm pro-Western and pro-NATO stance (admittedly, given Russia’s past behaviour, it didn’t need much coaxing). The Rose revolution which toppled the Shevardnadze regime was thus enthusiastically supported by the United States; it was perhaps no coincidence that it occurred at a time when neo-Conservatives – always ready to play geopolitics through regime change - were riding high in Washington after the ‘mission accomplished’ moment in Iraq.

The whole BTC project, however, was first conceived in the 1990s, at a time when Russia’s economic and military might was at low ebb - in fact, at a time when the very survival of the Russian state was in doubt. As such, policymakers in 2003 were working within a paradigm that was seriously outdated. In the 1990s, one could possibly ignore and pressure a weak, dependent Russia into allowing encroachments on what it has always seen as its natural sphere of influence: NATO expansion and Kosovo are remembered to this day in the Kremlin as the humiliating result of feebleness and loss of status, something never to be repeated – for instance, in Georgia.

By 2003, however, the Russian Federation was already changing from an impoverished former superpower to a 21st-century petro-power itching to reaffirm its great power status. If the United States wanted to play in its ‘near abroad’, this would not go unchallenged. This was compounded by the fact that the Kremlin had been taken over by Putin and the ‘siloviki’ – a close-knit clique of former KGB officers with a keen, very Russian sense of the geopolitical: Russia was a Great Power, and Great Powers need spheres of influence. Like it or not, this blatantly outdated, territorial notion of state power had always been deeply engrained in Russian strategic culture – and with petro-power at its disposal, Moscow could do it justice. BTC and Georgia came to be seen as a challenge to which Russia should and could respond – it would not be allowed to lose its ‘near abroad’ the way the Soviet Union had lost Eastern Europe as a prelude to the latter’s collapse. Of equal importance was the fact that control over Georgia would also imply control over Caspian oil and gas reserves. With much of Russia’s renewed regional and global clout based on its mineral wealth, its oil-conscious elite clearly saw the possibility of Moscow acting as gate-keeper to the Caucasus and Central Asia as an attractive prospect.

Thus, the current Russian leadership built on the policies it inherited from the supposedly ‘democratic’ Yeltsin era, which were, even then, when Russia was at its most ‘liberal’, designed to divide and rule the Caucasus. A number of ‘frozen conflicts’ had been artificially kept unresolved in Georgia through open Russian support for separatists entities – whose populations had been provided with Russian citizenship, presenting Moscow with a perfect excuse for intervention under the dubious cover of International Law in case of Georgian military action. For good measure, Russian involvement in peace-keeping operations provided a convenient additional trip-wire. Everything had been readied for a Russian incursion should the need arise. In view of this, the West’s perception that Russia would roll over and bolt once Georgia became a NATO member or candidate was quite surprising: if anything, the prospect of NATO membership, combined with its renewed oil wealth and the ready possibility of intervention must have increased Russia’s resolve for swift and decisive action. As long as Georgia was not under the protection of article 5 – and even the Membership Action Plan (MAP) rejected in April would not have granted that – intervention remained an absolutely rational option for Moscow.

The prospect of NATO membership combined with a second major Western miscalculation in pushing Georgia towards the brink: the recognition of Kosovo, and its detrimental effect on the principle of territorial integrity despite of all empty rationalisations by diplomats that it is ‘a special case’. The combination of these two factors put the Sahakashvili government under considerable pressure: on the one hand, NATO membership required a resolution to the unresolved internal conflicts, on the other hand, the longer these conflicts dragged on, the greater the chance of Kosovo repeating itself in the Caucasus. Russia’s upgrading of relations with both republics in response to the recognition of Kosovo deftly played into these fears. It seems, Georgia’s interests had been much less important to the West than making a point in the Balkans. Now, the country was faced with an unpalatable choice: it had to solve these territorial issues swiftly, or see its chances of becoming a NATO member diminish, with Kosovo acting as an admonition of what could happen to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the long run. With the clock ticking, it made the tragic choice of solving those conflicts quickly – and militarily. To the Russians’ delightful glee.

In general, the Kosovo case shows how the unilateral bending of international rules and the application of double standards always ends up haunting those engaged in the bending and double-talk. Rightly or wrongly, Kosovo was never seen in Moscow in humanitarian terms, but through the perspective of realpolitik – the cynical abuse by the West of humanitarian standards as a ruse for removing a thorn in its side by violating the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty. Humanitarian or not, Kosovo left open a huge grey area in International Law any great power could abuse to justify foreign intervention – it was now sufficient to cry ‘genocide’ in exactly the same way some in the West did in 1998-99 to excuse invading another country without UN approval. In circumventing the Security Council, NATO set a dangerous precedent, especially for smaller and weaker states like Georgia – unless one could suggest that NATO has a monopoly in determining what is and what is not a humanitarian catastrophe requiring intervention.

The second bending – some would say breaking – of international law came with the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Western diplomats can parrot the ‘special case’ argument as often as they like – the simple fact is that such recognition without the prior agreement of Serbia was unprecedented under post-WWII international norms. Both the principles of ‘uti possidetis’, and the principle of territorial integrity were put aside, with Western states – again – acting as prosecutor, judge and executioner. For Putin and the siloviki, the question arose – if there is such a thing as sovereign equality, why should such powers be reserved for NATO members? Why couldn’t a great power do the same in its sphere of influence – by threatening to break up a country that was a constant thorn in its side? Again, in unilaterally recognising Kosovo the West irreparably weakened a principle that was primarily designed to protect smaller and weaker members of the international community – to Georgia’s painful detriment. And, after the initial irritation at seeing a previously unassailable (and highly regarded) principle of international law flouted, Russian minds started thinking – ‘if they can do it, why can’t we, as a Derzhava (Great Power)?’

It is quite clear that Russia has been drawing a red line in the sand for some time now – rejecting any attempts by NATO to expand into ‘its’ near abroad. To the West, this issue is one of enhancing energy security and expanding the democratic zone of peace. Russia, by contrast, perceives the matter in much more existential terms – it sees its long-term survival as a great power as depending on a buffer, a zone of exclusive strategic influence. Moscow may be quite wrong in this perception, but everything suggests it would be willing to go to extreme lengths in order to maintain this essential objective, including dismembering Georgia, and perhaps even the Ukraine, in reaction to their pro-Western strategic orientations. For all the benefits NATO expansion would bring, Western capitals should ask themselves whether their goals are worth infringing on interests which Russia sees as essential to its survival. The core interests of Great Powers are only ignored at great risk – and, quite frankly, neither Georgia nor the Ukraine are worth the global conflagration which their move towards NATO might cause, if they would in fact be able to survive such a move.

Instead of attempting the impossible and risking the inconceivable, the Western alliance should start talking to Russia in its own language – that of realpolitik. First, it should draw a red line in the sand itself, by making it clear to Russia that any aggression or harassment of an established NATO member would be dealt with collectively; Russia has so far shown itself prudent, in practice, vis-a-vis those countries that are subject to protection under article 5, which should not be allowed to lose its deterrent effect. Second, the Alliance should come to an understanding with Moscow regarding the status of the former Soviet Union as a ‘neutral’ buffer zone, desisting from expansion in return for the non-aligned status of these states, which would also have to be encouraged to develop foreign policies that are prudent and balanced, taking into account the interests of their larger northern neighbour. The recent Turkish proposal of a Caucasus Stability Pact, while fraught with difficulty, could point the way in that regard. Third, Russia and the West should come to a clear common understanding regarding the principles that govern the recognition of entities like Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestria, instead of basing such recognitions on narrow unilateralism and momentary expediency. The one conflict where co-operation between Western states and Russia actually did go relatively smoothly – in Nagorno-Karabakh – could serve as a model for the remainder.

What the West should not do is maintain the hypocrisy that Georgia (and the Ukraine) could gradually move towards NATO without Russia doing everything in its power to destabilise both while they are still in the ‘twilight zone’. In Europe, at least, the world is no longer unipolar. The days where the Alliance could creep eastwards unopposed while freely tinkering with International Law without considering the consequences at other times and in other places are definitively over.