Of all the potential and realized conflicts that have faced the United States in the last eight years, the blatant violation of Georgia’s national sovereignty by Russia has been perhaps the only one which morally demanded a swift and powerful military response.
And yet, though we are happy to beat up little Arab nations as the whim takes us, to our national shame we are apparently not willing to use our substantial military muscle to defend our little allies. This is in fact the only good reason to go to war with a nation which has not actually attacked our own first. If a bully knocks down your little brother on the playground, you do not threaten to get the bully kicked off the student council: You step between him and the little guy fully prepared to commence smiting should it come to that.
The following is an editorial on the US “response” by our own former UN representative John Bolton.
Russia’s invasion across an internationally recognised border, its thrashing of the Georgian military, and its smug satisfaction in humbling one of its former fiefdoms represents only the visible damage.
As bad as the bloodying of Georgia is, the broader consequences are worse. The United States fiddled while Georgia burned, not even reaching the right rhetorical level in its public statements until three days after the Russian invasion began, and not, at least to date, matching its rhetoric with anything even approximating decisive action. This pattern is the very definition of a paper tiger. Sending Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice to Tbilisi is touching, but hardly reassuring; dispatching humanitarian assistance is nothing more than we would have done if Georgia had been hit by a natural rather than a man-made disaster.
The European Union took the lead in diplomacy, with results approaching Neville Chamberlain’s moment in the spotlight at Munich: a ceasefire that failed to mention Georgia’s territorial integrity, and that all but gave Russia permission to continue its military operations as a “peacekeeping” force anywhere in Georgia. More troubling, over the long term, was that the EU saw its task as being mediator – its favourite role in the world – between Georgia and Russia, rather than an advocate for the victim of aggression.
Even this dismal performance was enough to relegate Nato to an entirely backstage role, while Russian tanks and planes slammed into a “faraway country”, as Chamberlain once observed so thoughtfully. In New York, paralysed by the prospect of a Russian veto, the UN Security Council, that Temple of the High-Minded, was as useless as it was during the Cold War. In fairness to Russia, it at least still seems to understand how to exercise power in the Council, which some other Permanent Members often appear to have forgotten.
The West, collectively, failed in this crisis. Georgia wasted its dime making that famous 3am telephone call to the White House, the one Hillary Clinton referred to in a campaign ad questioning Barack Obama’s fitness for the Presidency. Moreover, the blood on the Bear’s claws did not go unobserved in other states that were once part of the Soviet Union. Russia demonstrated unambiguously that it could have marched directly to Tbilisi and installed a puppet government before any Western leader was able to turn away from the Olympic Games. It could, presumably, do the same to them.
Fear was one reaction Russia wanted to provoke, and fear it has achieved, not just in the “Near Abroad” but in the capitals of Western Europe as well. But its main objective was hegemony, a hegemony it demonstrated by pledging to reconstruct Tskhinvali, the capital of its once and no-longer-future possession, South Ossetia. The contrast is stark: a real demonstration of using sticks and carrots, the kind that American and European diplomats only talk about. Moreover, Russia is now within an eyelash of dominating the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the only route out of the Caspian Sea region not now controlled by either Russia or Iran. Losing this would be dramatically unhelpful if we hope for continued reductions in global petroleum prices, and energy independence from unfriendly, or potentially unfriendly, states.
It profits us little to blame Georgia for “provoking” the Russian attack. Nor is it becoming of the United States to have anonymous officials from its State Department telling reporters, as they did earlier this week, that they had warned Georgia not to provoke Russia. This confrontation is not about who violated the Marquess of Queensbury rules in South Ossetia, where ethnic violence has been a fact of life since the break-up of the Soviet Union on December 31, 1991 – and, indeed, long before. Instead, we are facing the much larger issue of how Russia plans to behave in international affairs for decades to come. Whether Mikhail Saakashvili “provoked” the Russians on August 8, or September 8, or whenever, this rape was well-planned and clearly coming, given Georgia’s manifest unwillingness to be “Finlandized” – the Cold War term for effectively losing your foreign-policy independence.
So, as an earlier Vladimir liked to say, “What is to be done?” There are three key focal points for restoring our credibility here in America: drawing a clear line for Russia; getting Europe’s attention; and checking our own intestinal fortitude. Whether history reflects Russia’s Olympic invasion as the first step toward recreating its empire depends – critically – on whether the Bush Administration can resurrect its once-strong will in its waning days, and on what US voters will do in the election in November. Europe also has a vital role – by which I mean the real Europe, its nation states, not the bureaucracies and endless councils in Brussels.
First, Russia has made it clear that it will not accept a vacuum between its borders and the boundary line of Nato membership. Since the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union collapsed, this has been a central question affecting successive Nato membership decisions, with the fear that nations in the “gap” between Nato and Russia would actually be more at risk of Russian aggression than if they joined Nato. The potential for instability and confrontation was evident.
Europe’s rejection this spring of President Bush’s proposal to start Ukraine and Georgia towards Nato membership was the real provocation to Russia, because it exposed Western weakness and timidity. As long as that perception exists in Moscow, the risk to other former Soviet territories – and in precarious regions such as the Middle East – will remain.
Obviously, not all former Soviet states are as critical to Nato as Ukraine, because of its size and strategic location, or Georgia, because of its importance to our access to the Caspian Basin’s oil and natural gas reserves. Moreover, not all of them meet fundamental Nato prerequisites. But we must now review our relationship with all of them. This, in effect, Nato failed to do after the Orange and Rose Revolutions, leaving us in our present untenable position.
By its actions in Georgia, Russia has made clear that its long-range objective is to fill that “gap” if we do not. That, as Western leaders like to say, is “unacceptable”. Accordingly, we should have a foreign-minister-level meeting of Nato to reverse the spring capitulation at Bucharest, and to decide that Georgia and Ukraine will be Nato’s next members. By drawing the line clearly, we are not provoking Russia, but doing just the opposite: letting them know that aggressive behaviour will result in costs that they will not want to bear, thus stabilising a critical seam between Russia and the West. In effect, we have already done this successfully with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Second, the United States needs some straight talk with our friends in Europe, which ideally should have taken place long before the assault on Georgia. To be sure, American inaction gave French President Sarkozy and the EU the chance to seize the diplomatic initiative. However, Russia did not invade Georgia with diplomats or roubles, but with tanks. This is a security threat, and the proper forum for discussing security threats on the border of a Nato member – yes, Europe, this means Turkey – is Nato.
Saying this may cause angst in Europe’s capitals, but now is the time to find out if Nato can withstand a potential renewed confrontation with Moscow, or whether Europe will cause Nato to wilt. Far better to discover this sooner rather than later, when the stakes may be considerably higher. If there were ever a moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall when Europe should be worried, this is it. If Europeans are not willing to engage through Nato, that tells us everything we need to know about the true state of health of what is, after all, supposedly a “North Atlantic” alliance.
Finally, the most important step will take place right here in the United States. With a Presidential election on November 4, Americans have an opportunity to take our own national pulse, given the widely differing reactions to Russia’s blitzkrieg from Senator McCain and (at least initially) Senator Obama. First reactions, before the campaigns’ pollsters and consultants get involved, are always the best indicators of a candidate’s real views. McCain at once grasped the larger, geostrategic significance of Russia’s attack, and the need for a strong response, whereas Obama at first sounded as timorous and tentative as the Bush Administration. Ironically, Obama later moved closer to McCain’s more robust approach, followed only belatedly by Bush.
In any event, let us have a full general election debate over the implications of Russia’s march through Georgia. Even before this incident, McCain had suggested expelling Russia from the G8; others have proposed blocking Russia’s application to join the World Trade Organisation or imposing economic sanctions as long as Russian troops remain in Georgia. Obama has assiduously avoided specifics in foreign policy – other than withdrawing speedily from Iraq – but that luxury should no longer be available to him. We need to know if Obama’s reprise of George McGovern’s 1972 campaign theme, “Come home, America”, is really what our voters want, or if we remain willing to persevere in difficult circumstances, as McCain has consistently advocated. Querulous Europe should hope, for its own sake, that America makes the latter choice.
- John R Bolton