The war involving Georgia has changed the political landscape far beyond the Caucasus. In addition to its recognition of the separatist provinces, Russia is about to reinstate the principle of “limited sovereignty” for Georgia. The West appears helpless – the United States is far away, its forces engaged elsewhere. The European Union has concluded a partnership agreement with Georgia but the European Neighbourhood Policy is not prepared for a geopolitical conflict. To date, the EU has not acted as a power needing to protect its values and interests in the Caucasus but as a mediator in a conflict to which is does not want to become a party. The current President of the European Council, Sarkozy, negotiated a cease-fire accord which became obsolete before its ink was dry. He was aiming at a quick diplomatic success while Putin and his generals are taking their time, a lot of time, to demonstrate to the Georgians and the world that Russia has returned – a Russia using its iron fist to secure its spheres of influence and punishing contrarian neighbours.
It took Western Europe a long time to acknowledge the dimensions of the conflict. There is a tendency to ignore discomfiting facts so as not to disturb good relations with Russia. On the other hand, those nations burned by Russian power politics have a heightened perception of the new, yet familiar, winds from the east. There is reason why, on August 9, the presidents of Poland and of the three Baltic republics warned in their joint declaration of the “imperialist and revisionist Russian policy.” But it is not just the usual suspects who consider Georgia to be the writing on the wall. The Ukrainian author Yuri Andrukhovych, a determined European, fears that Russia “will rise again.” He feels that Russia is intent on revising the historic failure of 1991, the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He sees this as an analogy to Germany between the two world wars: the “Weimar Era” has ended for Russia. It wants to become an imperial state once again, to regain its lost power and territories.
Inherent in all historical analogies is the danger of the self-fulfilling prophecy. But it should not be considered hysterical overreacting that especially those states with a strong Russian minority are responding with great concern to the Georgian “warning”. The Ukraine and the Baltic states perceive a Russian threat to dismember them successfully as well, following the Georgian example. Many Russians may be equally unwilling to accept the loss of the Crimea as the loss of Georgia, and the latent conflict surrounding the Russian naval base Sevastopol already constitutes a bone of contention.
What is at Stake
The EU approach to Georgia is important for the entire Central and East European architecture. Should the EU send a signal that it is willing to drop Georgia in favor of the “strategic partnership” with Russia, then this will be interpreted without fail as encouragement for Moscow’s revisionist ambitions, and as discouragement for those nations in Russia’s force field which have just become independent. The Russian government is determined to undermine solidarity by repeating time and again that the West must choose between supporting the “rogue regime” in Tbilisi and a partnership with Russia. As Foreign Minister Lavrov put it, “If supporting the bankrupt Saakashvili regime is more important to NATO than cooperation with Russia, it is not our fault.” Europe must not succumb to this blackmail because abandoning Georgia would signify the end of a European “ostpolitik” aimed at expanding the sphere of democracy and market economies. It would signify the end of all hesitant attempts at building an independent supply line for oil and natural gas from Central Asia and Azerbaijan to Europe, and the bankruptcy of all declarations of European values.
Please note: the issue is not solidarity with Saakashvili. He is responsible for the foolish attempt at retrieving South Ossetia with the use of force. He led his country to the brink of the abyss, and he must be held responsible for the civilian victims. What is at issue is the determined defence of Georgian sovereignty against Russian attempts to destroy what has just been gained. Burning bridges with Russia is not in our interest. But this does not mean that we should simply grin and bear it. The EU should impress upon Putin and Medvedev that the invading Georgia and cannibalizing its sovereign territory meant crossing a red line. Such blatant violation of international law, such a brutal approach to a small neighbouring state is a challenge to the system of collective European security.
Kosovo as a Precedent?
The fact that the Russians point to Kosovo as a precedent is comprehensible but factually inappropriate. Equating Milosevic and Saakashvili is pure propaganda. The NATO intervention in Kosovo was preceded by intense diplomatic efforts within the United Nations to find a political solution for the crisis while naturally including Russia. This intervention was based on a unanimous resolution by the Security Council, demanding the immediate cessation of all combat in Kosovo, and stating that peace and security were jeopardized in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The intervention eventually became questionable under international law because it took place without Security Council authorization, due to Russian resistance. But it was never considered license to bring war to other states under the cover of a humanitarian intervention. It is one thing that Russia has countered the Georgian military offensive against South Ossetia. But that it seized the opportunity to invade Georgia once the Georgian troops had been withdrawn is without any justification.
Sovereign states are free to decide which alliances to enter into. Whether Georgian NATO membership is right or wrong can be debated but by no means does this imply a Russian right to intervene. The sympathetic point that Russia should be able to defend itself against encirclement by NATO (meaning the United States) is humbug, viewed in the harsh light of reality. It is based on the assumption that an expansion of the Alliance towards the east constitutes a threat to Russian security interests. But NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine would have a different consequence: both nations would be protected from the grasp of Russia. Exactly this is the reason why they would like to slip under the NATO umbrella, and this is also the reason why Russian politicians and military leaders ferociously oppose the prospect. NATO expansion is not a zero-sum game where one loses what the other gains. Such thinking would only follow the cold war logic of separate spheres of influence.
Boris Yeltsin, considered a bane for Russia by his successors, not only accepted the break-up of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the nineties but considered it necessary for the development of a modern Russian nation state. And he was correct: there can be no democratic Russia without the end of imperialism. But for Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union is “the major geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century”, by no means to be accepted as irreversible. Exactly for this reason the former Soviet republics are looking for protection under the NATO umbrella. This even more so due to the half-hearted EU Neighbourhood Policy expressing horror at membership prospects for Georgia and the Ukraine. Whoever intends to condemn these countries to remain in a grey zone with respect to the Alliance, in effect consigns them to pressures by their big neighbour. Russia’s skill at playing the Machiavellian keyboard exceeds that of the European Union by far.
Europe and Russia
Seen from the perspective of Pan-Russian nationalism, the nineties appear to be nothing but a string of “humiliations” by the victorious West, a dark era of loss of power and territory. Today, however, bolstered by its huge profits from the export of natural resources and its strong position as an energy great power, Russia’s temptation to turn back the wheel of history is growing – while the United States is weakened by the Iraq debacle. The primary goal of integration into the West has been superceded by that of rebuilding Russia as a petro-military great power. The elite, however, is fully cognizant that cooperation with the West is required to modernize their country.
Furthermore, the nouveaux riches desire enjoyment of their wealth in London or St. Moritz. Russia wants to have its cake and eat it too: to keep the West out of its neighbourhood while dealing with it profitably. It wants to act as a great power in the Caucasus, Central Asia or the Middle East against the West without risking a clear break. It aspires to a monopoly position on the European natural gas market while allowing participation by European companies only for as long as these are content to be relegated to junior partners. It supplies Iran or Syria with weapons but wants to be recognized as mediator at the same time.
How should the EU interact with a Russia vacillating between the desire for international recognition and cynical power politics? Trying to isolate Russia would be foolish and illusory. The goal must remain to integrate Moscow into a joint network of security and economic cooperation, including the prospect for NATO membership. Such an offer to a democratic and cooperative Russia must be earnest and credible. Simultaneously, Europe must not avoid conflict when its values and interests are threatened by Russian policy.
Such should be the guiding principle for the European approach to Russia: as much cooperation as possible, as much willingness to face conflict as necessary. Not every conflict is useful and necessary at every moment. Hence the deployment of a missile defence system in Central Europe at all costs is not currently essential. But this does not apply to the Russian intervention in Georgia: this is not a conflict the EU can shy away from. There can be no return to “business as usual” for as long as Russia acts as an occupying power in Georgia and refuses an internationally brokered solution to the conflict. The upcoming EU emergency summit must send a clear signal to this effect.
Ralf Fücks is Co-President of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
Translation by Helga Flores-Trejo.
The German version of this article was first published by the "Tagesspiegel" on August 30, 2008.