Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and author of The Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan, writing in the Financial Times:
A year ago this Friday Russia and Georgia went to war. By the standards of modern warfare it was a little war. It lasted five days. Casualties were modest. It nevertheless sparked the greatest European security crisis since Slobodan Milosevic unleashed the dogs of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s. Moscow invaded a neighbour for the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It broke the cardinal rule of post-cold war European security that borders in Europe should never be changed by force of arms. It showed an ugly neo-imperial side of its policy that many in the west had hoped was part of the past.
The origins of this war were not rooted in competition over territory or the status of the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This war was fought to prevent Georgia from going west; and these conflicts were hijacked as part of a broader strategy to undercut Tbilisi’s western aspirations. Moscow feared the impact that Georgia’s pro-western democratic experiment could, if successful, have in the southern Caucasus and potentially across the border in Russia.
Pointing to the Kremlin’s motives does not absolve Georgia of responsibility for its mistakes.
President Mikheil Saakashvilli’s decision to fight last August 7 was a desperate response to the imminent threat of the ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of Georgian citizens in South Ossetia, the loss once and for all of the separatist province as well as a possible assault on Tbilisi – along with his fear that he would not survive politically if he did nothing. He began a war his key allies had repeatedly warned him not to start and that he could not win [LR: The U.S. war for independence in 1776 was also one which, any rational observer at the time would have said, could not be won.]. It is easier to start than to stop a war – as Tbilisi discovered when it was forced to accept an unjust peace to survive.
The west, too, should look in the mirror. Its disunity and policy mistakes accelerated the path to war. For years it supported a flawed peacekeeping arrangement that Moscow manipulated to go to war. Kosovo’s independence enhanced Georgia’s vulnerability without a plan for mitigating such fallout. And Nato’s handling of the Ukraine and Georgia issues at the spring 2008 Bucharest summit provided Moscow with the trigger for its campaign of escalation. The real mistake was not getting more involved on the ground in Georgia and with Moscow at a time when conflict could still have been prevented. We failed to back the core principles and norms of a European security order ostensibly designed to protect small states from the predatory behaviour of large ones. That system, too, failed last August.
The war may have been small in a technical sense but it raises big political questions. Do we still believe in the core principles laid out in the 1990 Charter of Paris and are we willing to defend them? Or do we now acquiesce to President Dmitry Medvedev’s desire to rewrite the rules of European security to grant Moscow its special sphere of influence? And how do we “reset” relations with Russia while remaining true to our values and the goal of a democratic peace in Europe? The conflict that led to the war is not over. The core issue has not been resolved. Georgia still wants to go west and Moscow wants to stop it. That is why we again hear rumbles of possible military action from Moscow.
But two lessons should be clear. First, the west needs to unite behind the position that breaking the rules of the game in Europe carries real costs and that further aggression against Georgia will lead to the kind of rethink of its relationship with Russia that did not happen last year. One can favour or oppose eventual Georgian membership of Nato but we should agree that resetting relations with Moscow must include its return to the principles of the Charter of Paris.
The second lesson concerns Georgia. Tbilisi must cease focusing on its conflict with Russia, set aside the future status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia for the time being and regain its passion for democracy and reform at home. It is the only way to regain the political and moral high ground, attract foreign capital, convince the west to embrace it more firmly and keep open the hope of one day convincing the Abkhaz and South Ossetians to come back peacefully to a unified Georgia.