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Georgia on my Mind

August 25, 2008

Probably the most interesting event on the international stage while I was away in Inner Mongolia was the brief war between Russia and Georgia, which of course resulted in a clear military defeat for the latter. Since I didn’t have access to the blog at the height of the action, I thought I’d offer a few belated comments.

One seemingly common reaction to the war was captured perfectly by a few lines in a BBC article:

Young Georgians want to join the world of their contemporaries in the West… and they cannot quite believe they have been caught up in something as old-fashioned as a war with Russia.

Until very recently, many Canadians would probably have agreed that worries about Russian aggression were old-fashioned. Right-thinking westerners in the 21st century, after all, are supposed to be concerned about Islamic militancy, the belligerence of Iran, and perhaps the growing military clout of China. But Russia? That’s, like, so 1980s.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it became fashionable to regard Russia as a spent force, a harmless if sometimes unruly bear that would become a tame member of the international community given a few years and a bit of guidance. Russia was badly weakened at the time, and NATO countries could virtually ignore Russia’s interests even in eastern Europe. Bombs fell on Russia’s ally Serbia, the United States established a close relationship with Georgia, and the EU and NATO expanded relentlessly eastwards in a sort of Eurocrat version of Manifest Destiny. An eventual counterreaction was inevitable.

Russia’s ferocity against Georgia may have had something to do with protecting the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgian domination, or with threatening the viability of Georgia’s new oil pipeline. But surely the primary motivations were to demonstrate the strength of Russia’s military, to punish a neighbour that was getting too close to America, and to send a clear message that Russia’s claims to a sphere of influence could no longer be ignored.

Canada and other western nations will have to decide carefully how to respond to this emphatic flexing of muscles. Should we urge our allies to impose punitive measures on Russia until its leaders come to a diplomatic understanding with the west, as Conrad Black argues with his usual eloquence? Or should we argue for a halt to western encroachment on Russia’s borders, in the hope of preventing further conflict?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    September 1, 2008 7:48 pm

    I certainly agree that fuel pipelines are going to be an issue and a potential source of conflict between Russia and other European countries for the foreseeable future. I’m less clear on how you think NATO, as a military alliance, should react when Russia plays fast and loose with fuel supplies – especially if you’re going to, er, stick to your guns as an avowed pacifist. NATO could overtly threaten to attack Russia next time it switches off the oil, or could it settle for an implied threat by situating troops and hardware in friendly eastern European countries. Either approach would be rather bellicose (i.e. hardly pacifistic!), and would run the risk of simply provoking Russia further.

    I suppose my position is that NATO, as such, would have a definite role to play in a military conflict with Russia, but not a diplomatic and economic conflict like the wrangling over fuel pipelines. NATO countries could choose to escalate the conflict into the military sphere, but for the moment I think it’s more realistic to stick to peaceful measures. Many European countries are already making determined efforts to wean themselves off fossil fuels, and they could always choose to deploy economic sanctions (although the devil would be in the details). The usefulness of NATO lies in discouraging a military escalation from the Russian side.

    I suspect that backing off a bit and allowing Russia a limited sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus would actually make the pipeline diplomacy easier. As long as the Russians feel that NATO and the EU are attempting to encroach on their turf, they will be tempted to assert themselves by making life difficult for their antagonists. Given a bit of space and respect, they may become much more reasonable.

    This perspective may strike you as Chamberlain-esque, but for that matter I think that Chamberlain comes in for more than his fair share of opprobrium. War with Germany eventually turned out to be more or less necessary, but was there really anything wrong with giving peace a chance?

  2. Scott Y permalink
    September 1, 2008 8:21 am

    Sorry for the confusion regarding Georgia Cor. I was mixing up my concern over NATO (period) with the specific context of Georgia. Because Georgia was not a NATO member, and because the majority of South Ossetians and Abkhazians (sp?) are pro-Russian, its a much more complicated situation for NATO. The right to self-determination (or in this case, South Ossetian absorption into Russia and Abkhazian indepedence) forces me to believe that Georgia should back down (and put a lid on its firebrand president). I still can’t get over the fact that when Russia entered South Ossetia, the SO refugees fled to Russian aid agencies, not Georgia.

    Moving on, the flashpoint that I’m most concerned about with regards to NATO-Russia relations (or, almost synonymously EU-Russia relations) is specifically on the topic of pipeline politics. Over the past year, we’ve seen examples of Putin’s Russia being willing to cut off oil to Belarus, Poland and the Czech Republic (and by extension, Western Europe) over perceived threats to Russian national security (missile sites in the Czech Republic) or unhappiness over Belarussian siphoning of the oil without previous mutual agreement. Obviously, Russia is starting to flex its muscle as a power to be reckoned with in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Europe militarily, economically and politically.

    I think the point we differ is over whether the reaffirmation of NATO’s original purpose will have any tangible impact. I agree with you that resurgent Russian antagonism reinforces the argument for a ‘Western/North Atlantic’ military alliance. But as a military alliance, NATO now exhibits a policy of appeasement and avoidance reminiscent of Chamberlain’s Britain. I’m not suggesting at all that NATO should fight Russian aggression with equal military force. I’m a pacifist. What I am suggesting is that NATO needs to take a good hard look in the mirror and realize (or reaffirm) this organization’s purpose, or else risk becoming as impotent as the UN Security Council.

    Sure – the reemergence of Russian military muscle-flexing has reinforced the purpose of NATO, but if NATO is unwilling to act, then that reaffirmation is redundant.

    Finally, if Russia is so stupid to roll tanks and military hardware to the old Iron Curtain, then NATO would probably fight fire with fire “hard, fast and virtually unanimous[ly]”. But Putin isn’t stupid. If Russia (via Gazprom) decided to cut off oil and gas supplies to Europe, would Europe (distinct from the UK and US) react by antagonizing their primary source of energy? I’m not so sure. How will Russian pipeline tactics affect Russian encroachment into Europe? I don’t know…and neither does Europe, but I’m sure the potential answer will scare them too.

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    August 31, 2008 2:27 pm

    Scott — Thanks for the clarification. I did look at the MacKenzie article, which I think made some good points but was perhaps a bit naive in not fully considering NATO’s political dimension. NATO may be a military alliance, but ultimately individual countries are going to make political decisions about how much effort they’re going to put into any particular mission. The war in Afghanistan, in my opinion, is not really vital to the security of any NATO member, and I’m not surprised that some countries are unwilling to get involved. I don’t think this makes NATO useless – it’s just that we need to be realistic about its limitations. With that said, a few helicopters doesn’t seem like all that much to ask for from our allies.

    Going back to Georgia, I’m not quite sure what you’re envisioning when you accuse NATO of being “unwilling to act against possible Russian aggression”. Do you mean that NATO should have intervened to help Georgia in the recent fighting, or perhaps that NATO should now demand that the Russians withdraw from Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Even the latter course of action would represent a bit of a gamble. It might force Russia to back down, but it might simply escalate an already tense diplomatic situation.

    What I meant about reaffirming NATO’s original purpose is that we now have clear evidence that the Russians have regained some (though certainly not all) of their military strength and are prepared to use it against their perceived enemies. The threat of a Russian attack on more westerly parts of Europe, which receded dramatically after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is suddenly much closer to being credible. Since NATO was created with this possibility very much in mind, the organisation now looks more relevant than it has for nearly 20 years.

    I think that the lack of united NATO action in Georgia and Afghanistan can be explained by the fact that neither country is exactly of critical importance to most of NATO’s members. If Russian tanks were rolling towards central Europe, the response from NATO would be hard, fast, and virtually unanimous.

  4. Scott Y permalink
    August 30, 2008 8:09 am

    I think I might have been a bit unclear Cor in my earlier comment. I believe that this Georgia-Russia conflict is showcasing the many flaws of NATO, namely that this military alliance is not willing to act militarily. How does this conflict reaffirm NATOs original purpose if its members are unwilling to act against possible Russian aggression?

    Did you have a chance to read the G&M Mackenzie article? I think he makes a pretty powerful argument about the concept of NATO. If this military alliance wants to remain effective in the 21st century, then situations where one member nation in a high-danger, combat zone (such as the Canadians in Kandahar) that is forced to lease military helicopters from a non-NATO country should never arise. The fact that the Germans, Greeks, Poles, Belgians, British, French, Italians, etc etc are unwilling to lend the Canadians some military hardware (helicopters) is a pretty sad state of affairs. How can NATO act collectively to counter Russian aggression (and Russia is acting recklessly aggressive these days) if there is virtually no unity in the alliance. Again, I dont want to overstate the state of affairs, but I do think that the NATO members need to take a good long look in the mirror and examine the responsibility and obligations of belonging to an alliance that is a military alliance first and a diplomatic or political alliance second.

    On a final note, I was glad to see that the SCO took the route of prudence and declined to advance the Russian agenda of aggression. And I agree with you that the SCO will become a Central Asian-Chinese-Russian version of NATO and will also lack the collective will to act.

  5. corsullivan permalink*
    August 29, 2008 9:37 pm

    There’s certainly a range of opinions out there regarding the wider implications, or lack thereof, of the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Some commentators are happy to wax eloquent about those “global ramifications” you warned us all not to overstate, whereas other seem to regard the war as a purely regional matter.

    My own view is somewhere in between. I actually don’t think the conflict is “challenging the basis of NATO” – if anything, it tends to reaffirm NATO’s original purpose as a transatlantic alliance against possible Russian aggression. (If Georgia had actually been a NATO member, of course, it would have been a different story.)

    However, NATO countries will definitely have to do some hard thinking about whether they want to continue to pursue their assertive, expansionist policies in eastern Europe. So far they seem to be taking a fairly tough line, which I suspect may lead the Russians to conclude that they must lash out even more forcefully (perhaps against Ukraine or Moldova) in order to be taken seriously as a rejuvenated great power. Isn’t it wonderful to live in interesting times?

    Apparently Russia got only lukewarm support from the other SCO countries. Rather crucially, nobody else is rushing to extend recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I suspect the SCO will turn out to be a bit like the EU, NATO, and indeed the UN – potentially effective when the interests of the heavyweight members (Russia and China, in the case of the SCO) happen to converge, but otherwise essentially a diplomatic forum.

  6. Scott Y permalink
    August 28, 2008 9:16 am

    It is imperative to not forget that this isn’t simply a Russia-Georgia conflict.

    This conflict is challenging the basis of the NATO alliance. There was an astute op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail several weeks ago (Aug 11) by retired Major-General Lewis Mackenzie (weblink: Basically, in this piece, Mackenzie belabours the fact that Canada is stuck leasing Russian-made helicopters in Afghanistan while three thousand unused helicopters sit across NATO nations. So Mackenzie argues that if this is truly a military alliance, it needs to start acting like one.

    In a recent post on this blog, I commented on the rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a counterbalance to Western-dominated international organizations. In a nutshell, the SCO serves as a counterweight military alliance to NATO, and includes China, Russia and most of the Central Asian ‘-stan’ countries. Well, the SCO is meeting this week in Tajikistan and Russia is seeking SCO support for its actions in Georgia. (AFP Article: While nothing definitive has emerged, what sort of statement or consensus comes out of the SCO will be very interesting.

    So its necessary that we not look at this conflict in the parochial Georgia-Russia lens. While I don’t want to overstate the global ramifications, it is key that we not forget the bigger impact of this microcosm of a conflict. What does this conflict say about the role of NATO in the post-Cold War world? And where are the balances of power shifting?

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