Politics & Policy

Putin Overplays a Strong Hand

In the middle of last week the Georgia crisis seemed destined to end in a clear victory for Russia. It had subdued its fractious, independent neighbor. All but one of the energy pipelines between Central Asia and Western Europe were under its direct control — and the single exception was but a few hours away by tank. A stern lesson had been sent to former Soviet possessions, inside and outside the Commonwealth of Independent States, that they live in Russia’s zone of influence and must conform to Russian foreign policy. The European Union had forsworn any criticism of Moscow’s open aggression to protect its own status as a “mediator.” The U.S. had failed to offer any real succor to Georgia. Thousands of “peace” demonstrators unaccountably had failed to appear in the streets to protest Russian aggression. And the world was moving on.

Then Russia overplayed a very strong hand.

Instead of gradually withdrawing, Russian troops began roving around Georgia destroying any property, including railway bridges and docks, that might conceivably have a military use. Moscow claimed that such actions were allowed under the terms of the peace deal negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on behalf of the European Community. This claim was not wholly false: Sarkozy had been so keen to clinch any kind of a deal that he accepted a clause that effectively sanctioned the Russian military presence inside Georgia. That reflected both his own undiplomatic eagerness and the appeasement mentality of France, Germany, and most of Western Europe. Even so, the appeasers were shocked when Russian forces, instead of withdrawing, set about dismantling as much of Georgia’s infrastructure as lay within their grasp while Moscow adopted a tone of undisguised bullying in its diplomatic statements to the world.

Accordingly, we have since seen the following developments:

Four presidents and one prime minister from Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states arrived in Tblisi to show solidarity with the Georgians. They addressed a large, enthusiastic crowd alongside Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.

‐ George Bush issued a strong statement condemning Russian behavior, put the Pentagon in charge of humanitarian aid and reconstruction in Georgia, and sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to demonstrate U.S. backing for Georgia.

Poland signed the missile defense agreement with the U.S. that Russian prime minister (and de facto leader) Vladimir Putin had strongly and aggressively opposed.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — the country that had blocked the applications of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO at the spring Bucharest summit — announced on her visit to Tblisi that Georgia’s membership was still open. In doing so she joined several other Western politicians and officials, including the NATO secretary general, who held out the continued prospect of NATO membership.

Ukraine, having left the Russian missile-defense system, has offered its interceptors to the new NATO one.

Almost as impressive as these events is what has not happened. Compare this Russian intervention with the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Tanks reached Prague. Czech leaders of the “Prague Spring” were rounded up and taken away to Russia, not emerging for some years. All of the Soviet satellite countries supported the invasion. Western reaction was initially slight, and then perverse: We became more rather than less keen on détente.

On this occasion, the Russian tanks stopped short of Tblisi. They may now be leaving “Georgia proper” (though we should not count chickens before they are hatched) and gradually winding down the crisis with their aims only partly fulfilled. Saakashvili is addressing large crowds in Tblisi. If he falls from power — one of the main Russian aims in the invasion — it will not be due to Russian pressure. Not one of the CIS states — Russia’s very near-abroad — has given a clear statement of support for the Russian invasion despite strong pressure from Moscow. The CIS countries, the Baltic states, and central and eastern Europe have all drawn the “wrong” lesson from Moscow’s actions. Instead of being cowed, they are anxious for strong condemnations of Russia and closer links with the West. Above all, the West is seriously reassessing its relationship with Russia.

This last point is crucial. If the West remains united around a policy of military and economic resistance to Russian neo-imperialism, all of the threatened states will eventually rally to our side.

We should realize, however, that resistance does not mean aggression or war. Western Europeans have fallen into the habit of assuming that the worst-case scenario in any conflict with Russia is the only option. There was no East-West war in Georgia because Russia enjoyed overwhelming local military superiority. As Mark Almost wrote in the Guardian, quoting Henry Kissinger, “Great powers do not commit suicide for allies.” On the other hand, if Georgia and its Western allies had enjoyed equality of forces with Moscow — or even if NATO forces had been there in almost any numbers — there would likely have been no war at all. Russia invaded because invasion was almost costless. If a war were to break out because of miscalculation between two more evenly matched sides, it would be a small-scale local conflict confined to Georgia and perhaps to South Ossetia. Neither Russia nor the West would risk it spreading outwards, let alone upwards.

What, then, does resistance mean? Its military aspect is the forging of closer defensive links with Ukraine, Georgia, and other nervous states — sometimes through NATO, sometimes independently. Such ties would act as a restraint on conflict rather than a spur to it.

Economic resistance might include reducing the world price of energy, moderating European dependence on gas and oil supplies from Russia, and making clear to Moscow and ourselves that we cannot be intimidated by threats to cut off such supplies. The worst that Moscow can inflict on its energy customers is disruption. When they ask, “What will you do when we cut off the gas?” Europe should reply, “Who will you sell your energy to if not to us?”

Russia is a fundamentally weak power enjoying temporary strength through high oil prices. It has overplayed its hand in Georgia — and is likely to find the results increasingly damaging as time goes by. That should warn it against overplaying its hand geopolitically. And the West should stress that thought.


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