The West must Face Russia on Georgia, Ukraine

Ronald D. Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels and author of The Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West, writing in the Moscow Times:

What is the most important source of disagreement today between Russia and the West? It is not the issues most often in the news — Iran or Afghanistan. It is Europe’s contested neighborhood: the future of those countries between the eastern border of NATO and the European Union and the western border of Russia. While the West and Russia still talk the talk of cooperative security in Europe, geopolitical competition for influence has been renewed in these regions.

Russia today openly lays claim to a sphere of interest in its borderlands — in direct contradiction to commitments made under the Helsinki process. It has embraced policies and a military doctrine that places NATO as the top external military danger and justifies the right to intervene in neighboring countries. While packaged in smooth diplomatic language, President Dmitry Medvedev’s new proposal for pan-European security has the less-than-hidden goal of stopping and rolling back Western influence.

Rather than moving into the 21st century, Russia seems determined to revert to 19th-century strategic thinking. With the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama focused on Afghanistan and Iran, the Kremlin hopes that a West in need of its cooperation will acquiesce to its demands.

And it is not only words. Eighteen months ago, a war took place in Europe between Russia and Georgia. It was a little war, but one that raised big questions. It was not fought over the future status of Georgia’s Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (though that source of conflict was a real one). Instead, the war’s root cause was Georgia’s desire to align itself with the West and Russia’s determination to stop it.

Many diplomats would prefer to forget the war or sweep it under the rug, but none of the underlying tensions have been resolved. There is no stable solution in sight for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has not abandoned the goal of breaking Georgia’s desire to go West. Instability and separatism are growing in the northern Caucasus, making the broader region more volatile.

In late January, the Obama administration issued its first unequivocal reaffirmation of the strategy of democratic enlargement that has guided Western thinking since the collapse of the Iron Curtain two decades ago. Speaking in Paris, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reminded us that NATO and European Union enlargement created an unprecedented degree of stability and security in the eastern half of the continent, that Russia too had benefited from this stability and that it was critical that Europe’s doors remain open to further enlargement.

But what about those countries in between — for example Ukraine and Georgia? Ukraine has just elected as its president Viktor Yanukovych, who is unlikely to pursue a NATO integration agenda, and if he follows through on his commitment to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, membership in the EU would be precluded. But that does not mean that tensions with Russia will automatically disappear.

Yanukovych’s victory notwithstanding, Ukraine is a country that is becoming more European and gradually moving out of Russia’s orbit in its own chaotic way. Regardless of whether Georgians like or dislike President Mikheil Saakashvilli, they want to go West, too. So Russia’s attempts to bring these countries to heel are likely to continue and remain a bone of contention and conflict.

And what is Western policy? In reality, the West today no longer has a grand strategy toward the East. The moral and strategic vision of the 1990s has exhausted itself and come to a grinding halt after the shock of the Russia-Georgia war and the recent Ukrainian election. As welcome as Clinton’s recent words were on the need to defend the right of countries to decide their own fate, you don’t have to go very far in Europe to hear whispers that some kind of new “Finlandization” might be a reasonable compromise for countries like Ukraine and Georgia.

It is time for the West to openly debate what its strategy is — and what it is not. Two decades ago, the West rejected “spheres of influence” because Europe’s bloody history taught us that compelling nations to align themselves with others against their will was wrong and a recipe for future conflict.

If we still believe that today, we need an updated moral and strategic vision for such countries and to back it up with a real strategy. We need to be clear that Moscow has a right to security, but that it does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, to topple their governments or to deny them their own foreign policy aspirations.

Obama is right to try to reset relations with the Kremlin and engage a revisionist Russia. But we need to do so knowing what our strategy is on this key issue. As the United States and Russia close in on a new arms control treaty, it is time to face the question of how we deal with Europe’s contested neighborhood

15 responses to “The West must Face Russia on Georgia, Ukraine

  1. Ronald Assmess has made a weak argument by summing up that “Obama is right to try to reset relations with the Kremlin and engage a revisionist Russia.” Been there, Done that.

    Moscali only become reasonable when harmless, like following one of their internal bloody revolutions.

    What has RaSSiya done to deserve a reset? NOTHING at all, but an Idle promise, Maybe a promise, not to send SS300 Missiles to Iran or build a nuke. If Moscow won’t China will. China is in Iran for the Oil already, and on the security council of the UN so Rooshan vote is meaningless.

    Iran is pressuring Russia to provide it with SS-300 missiles “under existing contract” to protect its nuclear sites and other essential facilities in case of an Israeli or American attack. Although the Russians made no promises, it was intimated to Israeli officials that Russia would take no steps that would harm Israel’s security. But moscow could ship the missiles through the Caspian to Iran directly.

    Israel is wrong to sell moscali the reconnaissance drones and technology in the first place, if they are really worried.

    As for cooperation on Afghanistan, the US would not be there if Moscow did not invade it in the first place. The Kremlin General admitted that war in Afghanistan is more in Rooshas interests anyway. Roosha is already complaining that the Americans are not destroying the Poppies fast enough to keep 90% of the worlds dope out for them, since shifting to a precursor chemical removal stratergy. Obama promised to bring the war to a close, not to expand it. Training Afghani Police is a joke, most can’t even read a drivers license.

    EU set up the Schengen Zone as a “Sanitary Corador around RaSSiya. Problem is that Ukraine is in the geographical center of Europe and is on the wrong side of it.

    Brussels Delaying Tactics, like telling President Yanukovich that depending on his reforms, in a year, Ukraine may, get a visa arrangement. Brussels are into more Coquetry and that is not something that the Pres can take back to his government. Now todays “talk” with Pootin in the Kremlin begins. More like a to-do list for Ukraine. “Finlandization” is an reasonable compromise for countries like Ukraine and Georgia. Finland lost almost half its territory.

    Ultimately using Ukraine to stabilize Roosha is like appeasing Hitler with the Sudetenland. Who is next in line?

  2. Meant to say Finlandization is an UNreasonable compromises for Ukraine and Georgia.

  3. Obama IS right to try to reset relations with Russia that were damaged by the belligerence of the Bush/Cheney administration, but lasting stabilization is unlikely to prevail so long as the perception exists that relations between Russia (that’s how you spell it) and its borderlands are arbited by the United States.

    Democracy advocates make much of protecting the will of the majority, so that they can decide how they want to live without the threat of coercion. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as “A Little War That Shook the World” correctly points out, are mostly ethnic Russians and pro-Russians who prefer to remain aligned with Russia. They had also enjoyed de facto independence from Georgia for some considerable time. Where’s the democracy in forcing them back under Georgia’s thumb against their will? Is it Georgia’s position that the populations of these provinces were drugged, or otherwise unable to express their wishes rationally?

    It appears much more likely in hindsight that Saakashvili assumed (or somehow became convinced) that if he started something, the West would have no alternative but to back him up (sometimes called “the Chalabi Principle”). He was wrong, and it’s just as well, because he would have had to impose martial law or a near-equivalent in order to control the provinces if he had been successful, all supposedly to satisfy the small minority within Abkhazia/South Ossetia who allegedly preferred to live under Georgian leadership. No need to mention the outside interests who nurse an obsession with checking Russia. In any case, a situation that had persisted – albeit uneasily – with no noticeable harm to anyone for a considerable time flared into violence, and there is no shortage of Western leaders who blame Saakashvili.

    Continued interference and provocative initiatives such as siting a Ballistic Missile Radar on Russia’s doorstep would not be tolerated by any Western powers if Russia were the provocateur, but for some reason Russia is supposed to accept (in the face of historical contradictions) that it’s all harmless and that high levels of Western tampering and influence-building in border states are innoccent of implication.

    Would you be likely to believe that if Russia offered assistance to Quebec in achieving its independence from Canada, and struck a deal with the new nation to site a Ballistic Missile Radar there that would be able to see deep into American airspace?

    I have no particular opinion either way, but the fact persists that the majority blames Saakashvili. I’m not making it up. Of course Russia blames Saakashvili – that’s easy, because they despise him. But I’m talking about the people who would normally be his allies.

    • Quebec is a civilized place and can stand for herself. It’s not oppressed by Ontario and the rest of Canada. If Quebec voted to leave Canada, it would not be attacked by Canada or the U.S.

      The situation in Georgia is very different. I do think that Abkhasians want to leave Georgia. But it’s none of Russia’s business. Russia should take her hands off and let the chips fall where they may. Russia has no right to determine what alliances her sovereign neighbors may enter and which they may not.

      • I’d counter that it is none of Georgia’s business, either, and Georgia has a similar responsibility to let the chips fall where they may. Georgia’s own independence was achieved with relative peace and a surprising lack of violence given the expectations, and Russia let them go whatever her reluctance may have been. When Saakashvili attacked, Abkhazia and South Ossetia petitioned Russia for support. Russia may very well have been waiting for just such an excuse, but that doesn’t make it less foolish that the opportunity was offered like a ripe plum.

        The semi-autonomy of the two provinces was not an alliance, but the disollution of an alliance, and if Russia has no right to influence contiguous realignments, neither does Georgia. If Abkhazia and South Ossetia weren’t settled mostly by ethnic Russians, Russia wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on.

        You’re right in context with respect to Quebec’s status in Canada, but I offered Quebec as an example more for its strategic positioning at America’s throat than for any other reason, similarly to the strategic positioning of Poland and the Czech Republic in proximity to Russia. I just meant that America would never allow a nonaligned power to site a massive surveillance radar on its borders, and it’s also unrealistic to expect Russia to sit still for it.

        • Georgia does have legitimate interest there. Those provinces are within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders, remember?

          • Is Georgia not a civilized place?

            “If Quebec voted to leave Canada, it would not be attacked by Canada or the U.S.”

            Abkhazia and South Ossetia had not held a formal vote to leave Georgia, but they had lived in semi-autonomy for some time, and their alignment with Russia was not in doubt. Certainly the polar opposite of the right thing to do was to attempt to bring it back into the fold by military force. In so doing, Georgia relinquished the moral high ground; even Saakashvili’s Western supporters agree it was a stupid thing to do. You can’t scream, “Help me – I’m being attacked!!!” when you are the clear aggressor.

            The title suggested the West must support Georgia. I argue the West should mind its own business unless Russia launches an unprovoked attack on Georgia proper, and I don’t think we’re too far apart on that. The U.S. already has a plateful of foreign entanglements, and spends nearly 40% of the budget on the military (including the cost of keeping Iraq and Afghanistan lurching along).

            The message should not be “Georgia right or wrong”, but “Don’t crap in your own boots and then yell for me to come clean up the mess”. I’m not arguing the U.S.A. or the West in general should never confront Russia – just not unless they’re clearly in the wrong. And Saakashvili messed that up.

        • Well Mark, I can see that you are talking about a subject of which you are ignorant.

          In 1991 when the war in Abkhazia started, the Georgians were the single largest ethnic group in the province making up between 47 and 50% of the population, while the Apsu (today called Abkhazians) made up only 17%.

          Georgians and Apsu have both lived in Abkhazia for all of recorded history, and both have an inalienable right to live in the province.

          All of the cultural relics and architectural monuments in Abkhazia, for example Churches, bridges, and fortresses, some of which date to the second century, are of Georgian origin, and are covered with Georgian inscriptions.

          However, in a campaign of real ethnic cleansing, the Apsu separatists, backed by elements of the Red Army, Frontal Aviation, and the Black Sea Fleet, and in direct violation of ceasefire agreements to which they were signatory, killed around 20,000 Georgian civilians and forced around 250,000 to flee.

          Do some research on the Gagra massacre, the Gaudata massacre, and the Sukhumi massacre.
          Teenage girls raped, young and old, men women and children murdered etc, it is all quite well documented.

          Apsu who tried to protect their Georgian neighbors were also murdered by the separatists.

          Some Georgians were allowed to return to Gali, where they make up 98% of the population, however this was not done out of altruism on the part of the separatists, but from economic necessity, as the Apsu are not particularly good farmers, and were unable to produce enough food to feed their own population.

          A similar situation exists in “South Ossetia”, the separatist militia which ethnicly cleansed the (native) Georgian population (Ossetians have only lived in “South Ossetia” since the 12th century and only became a majority in the 1890’s in the countryside, and did not become a majority in Tshkinvali until the 1960’s) also burnt down the orchards and fields that supplied Tshkinvali with food.

          Russia created both separatist movements, armed and supplied them, led them and even took part directly in military operations, and its release of Georgia from slavery was far from bloodless (see Russian actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 90’s for details, not to mention the April 9th massacre etc).

          I suggest strenuously that you get an education.

  4. Georgia has more real Allies than RaSSiya. Why is that?

    What about borders? I understand that RaSSiya claimed the North Pole but could not occupy it yet.

    Diplomacy with Moscovia has never worked till it fell apart. Then the money disappeared, who’s fault was that?

    Business relations with RaSSya also are useless in a contractual society.

    Perceived help in foreign relations has not materialized.

    Obama can now sit on his reset button.

    Forget about the politicians that want to sweep the provocations, under the table till, there is a new administration, that must eventually deal with it. RaSSiya will not be allowed to Suck in its neighbors.

    But it will try, like making bomber runs to the US and turning back.

    • Really? Who are Georgia’s real allies? Where were they in August 2008?

      • Nobody wants to make any deal with Sukashwilli except Scheiss-Amis. Abkhasia and South Ossetia will be a part of Russia soon. And Okraine will be the Russian colony for the next decades, as its name explicitly suggests. Yanukovich will help Russians with that.

        • Georgia has the potential to be a healthy, wealthy nation-state. The measure of a nation is its ability to feed its people, defend its borders and tolerate dissension. Russia has a bit of trouble with the last one, but the best way to encourage an overreaction is to initiate one yourself. Saakasvili isn’t stupid, but he overestimated Georgia’s importance to the West and his own appeal as a once-in-a-lifetime leader.

          Georgia’s chief value to the West is as an irritant to Russia and a promoter of civic unrest.

          Ukraine also has potential to be a wealthy nation in its own right. Russia is unlikely to let it go entirely, owing to its agricultural importance, but I can’t imagine Russia invading Ukraine or seizing it by force, because they’d be unable to hold it now. The most likely scenario is constant bargaining, Russian gas for Ukrainian grain and agricultural products.

          • Mark, you forgot about the industrial stuff like the Zenith Space launcher and the biggest airplane.

            Roosha has already launched a beach head on to Crimea, and makes statements in the Duma that it is Rooshan Territory.

            Maybe Roosiyski not invading all of Ukraine but bite size pieces as usual, till the next Rooshan Riot in Moscow.

            RF will fall faster than Savok. Already there are dissidents showing up out of hiding to lead the assault. It will come from every direction this time.

            Even the frozen conflicts. Rasha cannot sustain the coming multi vector onslaught.

            RaSSiyskaya’s biggest worry. The Oligarchs will be murdered before the can get out, or hanged in Europe. Money confiscated and returned to the people.

        • HuyVam,
          You better start learning chinese [it will be mandarine, I understand] and forget about Europe. You are a laughing stock of civilized world with your pathetic new security treaty or your new military doctrine – apparently you planned to nuke yourselves – we, of course, respect the latter choice. By the way your name sounds like ‘Russian nobility’

      • No serious country recognized the territorial gains against Georgia. You lying and scheming territorial invading Savok.

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