The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
August 26, 2008

Georgia - Russia is more vulnerable than many think, argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

What can the West do about Russia's aggression in the Georgia? Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - offers some solutions.

The war and conquests in Georgia, of which we heard so many extraordinary accounts, have come to nothing. General Sukatin and twelve officers were the wretched remains that returned to Petersburg of an army that had so long been represented as triumphant, and as aiming at no less than the subversion of the of the Turkish Empire in Asia. They attributed their misfortunes to causes that were at all times to be foreseen: to the impracticability of the country, the want of sufficient force, and the impossibility of necessary supplies; to which should have been added, the native bravery of the inhabitants, and their total disinclination to submit to a Russian government.

Annual Register or a view to the History. Politics, and Literature for the year 1773
[probably authored by Edmund Burke], p. 33

If these lines sound familiar, it is because they could have been written by a Russian in the mid-1990s, after President Boris Yeltsin sent his forces into Chechnya, only to find them mired in a nasty guerrilla war. So far, the recent expedition against Georgia has been a pushover, but that will not last. As the Annual Register shows, the Georgians have a long and warlike history. Sooner or later, the game of cat and mouse will end, and another vicious partisan campaign will begin. The price for the Georgians may be very high, but Moscow too will have to count the cost.

So why has the Kremlin sought this war?

For however clumsily President Saakashvili of Georgia has handled the problem of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are part of his internationally-recognised sovereign territory, it is clear that the Russian leadership trapped him into this war.

It was Moscow which had encouraged these regions to rebel in the first place in order to maintain its influence in the region; it had deployed manifestly biased "peacekeepers" to freeze the situation to Georgia's disadvantage; it shot down Georgian aircraft; provoked Saakashvili in every possible way including the issuing of passports in the disputed areas; and sabotaged any attempts at a compromise settlement. The intervening troops were deployed well in advance, giving the lie to the idea that Moscow was simply responding to an escalating situation. All this reminds one of nothing so much as Bosnia in 1992, when the embattled Sarajevo government may not have been completely blameless but was manifestly the victim of a landgrab directed by an outside power.

It has been often and rightly said that this is not about South Ossetia, Georgia itself, or even the whole Caucasus, which has become an area critical to western energy security. Rather it is about the re-assertion of Russian power in the "Post-Soviet Space".

Moscow is determined to pre-empt the siting of a US missile shield - which she considers to be directed as much against herself as against the pretended threat of an Iranian or other "rogue" missile strike on the United States - near her western border. It is also firmly of the view that while the expansion of NATO into the Baltic states was bad enough, its absorption of Ukraine, Georgia and perhaps even Belarus is not to be countenanced under any circumstances. Moreover, the escalation of international tension with "historic" enemies allows the Kremlin to mobilise the Russian population behind the regime and distract from the lack of real democracy at home.

Round one, everybody agrees, has gone to Putin. NATO has been humiliated. The feeble western communiqués remind one of Bosnia, albeit this time with different faultlines. Europe has been characterised by division, as the French and Germans plead for appeasement while the United States and Great Britain have argued for a tougher stance.

The calling of an EU summit in September is reminiscent of another conference, summoned by the European powers in the early summer of 1992 in the hope that the war would be over by the time the powers convened in London in August. (Although in this case the reason does not seem to have been prevarication but unwillingness to come home from holidays early!). All this has sent a shiver down spines in the Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States, and all those with cause to fear a resurgent Russia.

So what is to be done? The first thing to note is that vacuums cause instability. The Russians have shown no signs of intervening militarily where NATO is already established. Both Georgia and the Ukraine must therefore be put on the path to rapid membership; NATO forces should be deployed eastwards in order to give article five security guarantee the necessary credibility. Turkey should be brought more speedily into the EU and its role in order to consolidate its position within the western system. The United Nations Security Council must demand full withdrawal of Russian forces from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and authorise NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over sovereign Georgian territory, leaving it to the North Atlantic Council to decide whether it wishes to confront Russian expansionism now - or at some future date.

None of this is without very considerable risks. It is just possible that the Kremlin will gamble on the lack of political will in Washington and European capitals, and press forward to occupy the rest of Georgia, and even parts of the Ukraine. It has already threatened the redeployment of nuclear weapons to the Baltic, and warned that it might stop the flow of supplies to allied forces in Afghanistan from the north.

Yet with Turkey to the south, NATO is closer than many think, and the Russians will find deploying large-scale armoured formations in the narrow gorges of the Caucasus very difficult without air cover.

Finally, Russia itself has at least one geopolitical hostage of its own: the enclave of Kaliningrad, the former East Prussia, from which the German population was ethnically cleansed in 1944-1945. In the new security environment, leaving a Russian nuclear naval base in Kaliningrad behind NATO lines is akin to having Soviet SS-20 missiles in Luxemburg during the cold war. Sooner or later Berlin is going to have to think hard about this one. The Kremlin may rue the day when it decided to revise the territorial settlement in Europe.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Prof Anatol Lieven writes that Ukrainians oppose NATO membership by 2:1 because they fear upsetting their Russian neighbour, and being dragged into some distant, American, losing war (current or future). One might add being abandoned at the last moment by big-talking Western hypocrites. Think Iraq in the 1990s.

As for the author's notion: "The Russians have shown no signs of intervening militarily where NATO is already established", one recalls Russia warning that accepting America's missiles would make Poland a nuclear target. That happened last week, as I recall. Have they stopped taking the daily newspapers at Cambridge?

Posted by: s masty at August 29, 2008 12:02 PM

I don't disagree with your general line. However, perhaps special security arrangements could and should be agreed for Georgia and Ukraine (with, of course, their agreement). In two bargains, Georgia and Ukraine could decide to remain outside NATO but with Russia agreeing to respect their territorial integrity and independence. Western states could guarantee their borders. This would achieve the same end as NATO membership without the hurt to Russian sensitivities.

Posted by: Bob D at September 12, 2008 05:05 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement