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Lessons Of A Postmodern War

  • John O'Sullivan

Very different from Czechoslovakia, 1968

Very different from Czechoslovakia, 1968

TBILISI -- Seated in an open-air restaurant overlooking the Mtkvari River, enjoying a light lunch of mountain trout and Georgian salad, one finds it hard to believe that Russian tanks are only about 25 kilometers away -- indeed that they may be even closer by the time the Turkish coffee arrives.

Tbilisi has few signs of being a capital city at war. National flags hang from many buildings. Newspapers have emphatic anti-Russian headlines such as "Peacekeepers Go Home." Some pavement satirist has sprayed the features of Vladimir Putin on the pathways so that pedestrians tread on his face.

But there are no bomb shelters; no one looks up anxiously at the sky when a plane is heard; and refugees head into the capital from South Ossetia for help rather than away from it in panic.

This postmodern invasion looks very different to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia 40 years ago -- and in ways that bear examination:

  • In 1968, Soviet tanks reached the center of Prague. Today, Russian tanks seem to be going back and forth around major Georgian towns, but they will not head straight from Tbilisi without an additional (and highly improbable) Georgian provocation.
  • In 1968, Czech leaders of the Prague Spring were rounded up and deported, reappearing years later as gardeners and furnace-men. Today, Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president, addresses large anti-Russian allies in the capital and hosts visits from Western leaders.
  • In 1968, the Soviets simply imposed the regime change they wanted; today, they are reduced to urging the Georgians to replace Saakashvili which, if anything, seems to strengthen him.
  • In 1968, the Soviet invasion was a "multinational" one drawn from the entire USSR and Eastern Europe; today, most members of the CIS have either criticized the Russian invasion or remained silent.

Soviet Russia in 1968 had to make a fairly simple calculation. It had to weigh the preservation of its power over Eastern Europe against the value of political and economic detente with America. It chose the former, calculating that the United States would restore detente from a mixture of self-interest and moral weakness after an interval. And that is what happened.

Two weeks ago, the authoritarian Russia of Vladimir Putin had a much more complex problem to solve. Its war aims were to "punish" Georgia for seeking to join NATO (and for being noisily pro-West in general); to warn other ex-colonies such as Ukraine and Poland not to follow Georgia down the same path; to establish de facto control over all the energy pipelines going from Central Asia to Western Europe; and to translate its new-style geoeconomic power into old-style geopolitical power.

A 1968-style seizure of Tbilisi and "suiciding" of Saakashvili would have achieved these aims in short order.

But the Kremlin wanted these results without a) damaging Russia's access to Western markets and investment; b) undermining good diplomatic relations with the West; c) provoking Eastern and Western Europe into safeguarding their interests against newly visible Russian threats; and d) infringing international norms too blatantly. And it had to navigate between these contrary pressures under the gaze of a new international superpower: the international unsleeping 24-hour media.

Hence the Kremlin needed a pretext, a respectable war aim, and a satisfactory media "narrative" for its nice little war. Saakashvili provided the first by allowing the Georgian forces to respond to shelling with a full-scale military assault. The war aim was the defense of South Ossetia and its peacekeepers (which, however, theoretically limited the geographical reach of Russia's advance.) Russia's official media catered the third necessity by accusing the Georgians of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" -- genocide justifies intervention under international law -- while the fog of war was still thick on the battlefield.

Effects Of The Intervention

If this narrative had stuck, Russia might have prevailed morally in diplomatic debate as well as militarily in the locality. But it was contradicted too plainly by the reality of a massive preplanned Russian invasion. And as the media uncovered more and more of this reality -- symbolized by Russian forces moving out of some towns but digging in elsewhere on Georgian territory -- so the boomerang effects of the Russian intervention began to appear:

  • Poland signed the deal to accept U.S. missile defenses, and Ukraine offered its own interceptors for the missile-defense system.
  • Investors began to take their money out of Russia.
  • Western leaders turned up in Tbilisi pledging eventual admission into NATO.
  • A NATO summit ended "business as usual" cooperation with Russia as long as the Georgia crisis persisted.
  • Western Europe began to wake up to an energy crisis resulting from dependency on Russia rather than from global warming.
  • And Russian diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere had to fend off charges of barely concealed aggression.

None of these reactions will continue or bear fruit in the form of changed Russian behavior unless the West remains united. And that raises a larger question about larger contending forces in global politics.

Two recent books -- "The New Cold War," by Edward Lucas, and "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," by Robert Kagan -- have argued persuasively that instead of a essentially peaceful world of cooperative democracies, we face a new struggle, global and ideological, between the Western democracies and self-confident and economically successful authoritarian states such as Russia and China.

At first glance, the Georgia crisis fits that description well -- especially since many Georgians seek entry into NATO as a way of entrenching their own fledgling democracy as much as a protection against Russia. Many people in the Caucasus, the Balkans, and other troubled areas say the same thing.

Two Western Camps

In fact, as the crisis revealed, the "Western democracies" were not one camp but two. Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and the United States wanted clear support for Georgia, its early entry into NATO, condemnation of Russian aggression, and the threat of strong penalties -- such as exclusion of Russia from the Group of Eight (G8) -- if the Kremlin maintained its hard line.

On the other hand France, Germany, Benelux, Spain, and Italy wanted a softer policy, avoiding condemnation of Russia or measures such as exclusion from the G8, in order to keep Russia engaged with the West. (British policy sought a third way, being pro-Georgian but not anti-Russian -- in short, a typical British muddle -- but London is likely to drift in the direction of the U.S.-New Europe camp in practice.)

That division within Europe overlaps heavily with an ideological distinction stressed by Kagan in an earlier book: Those who see a need for sovereign states and military power (and so are NATO-minded) versus those who believe that "lawfare" has replaced warfare in a world of soft power, global rules, and supranational bodies (and so look to the European Union as their main security provider.)

If that is so, then the world is really a three-way struggle between authoritarians, national democrats, and global legalists.

But the odd thing is that when the crisis broke, those who rushed to defend the new international norms were not the global legalists but the national democrats -- in particular, the leaders of Poland and the Baltic states who came to Tbilisi to show solidarity with the Georgians (as shortly afterward did the British Tory leader David Cameron.)

The global legalists were very quiet about Russia's breaking of the rules. The EU mission to Moscow led by Nicolas Sarkozy operated on the premise that it was necessary to avoid condemning Russia in order to be a successful mediator. Yet Sarkozy and his EU team were bamboozled by the Russians into accepting and promoting a cease-fire agreement that contained loopholes through which the Russians drove entire tank battalions. And that diplomatic failure was made easier precisely because the Russians were not put in the dock.

In the end, the EU argument that pooling sovereignty leads to greater real power proved to be a sham -- and worse than a sham. It led in practice to collective impotence and self-deception. And there is a reason why that will always happen.

Global legalism rests upon the delusion that powers with the ability to assert their interest in some vital matter can be prevented from doing so solely by rules in which every state has a modest long-term theoretical investment. But as soon as a real crisis erupts -- and Georgia is certainly such a crisis -- the global legalists realize that their legal restraints are incapable of restraining the rule-breaker. In order to maintain their legalist fiction, therefore, they have to deny or obfuscate the fact that the rules have been broken or that any particular state is responsible for the conflict.

If they have to take sides, they tend to support the stronger power since that makes it easier to solve the dispute in a way that seemingly conforms to the rules. Might is cloaked with Right in order to save the blushes of the "international community." If the rules are to have real impact, they must be backed by more than a legalist fiction.

In the Georgia crisis those nation-states and international bodies that defended the global rules effectively, that condemned Russia for breaking them, and that used the soft power of public diplomacy to restore their effectiveness were all forces that could ultimately call on hard power and/or serious national self-interest to support their words. Practitioners of hard power were able to use soft power; advocates of soft power ended up wielding no power at all.

Neither NATO nor the EU covered itself with glory in this crisis. But the EU actively appeased Russia, while NATO at least resisted feebly. NATO can exert real pressure on Russia, in part because it disposes of real military power, in part because it includes states, notably Poland, that have a real stake in Russia not winning outright in Georgia.

Moreover, Poland and its "New Europe" allies have an additional motive for their defense of Georgia. They are still conscious of the value of their own democratic sovereignty -- hence respectful of other sovereign democracies. More elderly democracies in Western Europe seem to have forgotten the pleasures of self-government.

This postmodern war is still continuing. Yet it has already proven a great deal: the limits of military power in Russia's case, the limits of soft power in Europe's case, and the emptiness of global legalism without roots in real nations, real interests, and real democratic accountability.

John O'Sullivan is RFE/RL's executive editor. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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