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Seven Theses Prompted By Russia-Georgia Conflict

  • Fyodor Lukyanov

The Kremlin has been shocked by the Western support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The Kremlin has been shocked by the Western support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The war between Georgia and Russia is sending considerable shockwaves through world politics. It is hard to evaluate completely the results of the five-day armed conflict, but there are several tendencies whose development will determine the course of events.

First, we have seen a dramatic conflict of perceptions, one that has proven far deeper than the disagreements that had arisen earlier between Moscow and the West. Russia -- not only its leadership, but the public as well -- believes its actions are 100 percent justified both politically and morally. Moscow is completely confident it is right and that it had no other course of action.

But a significant number of influential countries hold the exact opposite view -- that Russia's actions, whatever provoked them, were completely and categorically unacceptable.

Russia has been genuinely shocked by this foreign reaction and by the one-sided support that Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvili has received from the West, despite violating every conceivable humanitarian norm of civilized conduct. Moscow sees this as more than just a double standard, but as unabashed cynicism beyond the bounds of normal political practice.

This could produce far-ranging consequences. Russia is now inclined not only to reject completely a path determined by Western values, but actually to deny that such values even exist.

Second, the problem of Russia's lack of reliable allies, about which there has been much talk for a long time, has emerged clearly and painfully. It would be an exaggeration to say that Russia finds itself in international isolation. After all, only a few countries have called for Russia to be punished, while most have been unsure how to react. But Russia has clearly found itself in a vacuum. No one has supported Moscow's actions, although for various reasons.

Now there is a chance Moscow will seek closer ties with countries with which Russia under other circumstances would be more cautious. And there is also the danger that partners will try to exploit Moscow's "loneliness" to get concessions for support.

New Security Equations

Third, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has demonstrated that it is able and willing to use force outside its borders in order to defend its national interests. This leaves neighboring countries faced with the question of how to ensure their own security.

This dilemma is understandable. One solution is by seeking the protection of major powers outside the region -- and not just general political support, but obligatory security guarantees. Another solution would be to conclude agreements with Russia -- that is, to get the same guarantees from Moscow. Such an arrangement would not only provide security from external threats, but would also provide protection in the event of deteriorating relations with a powerful neighbor.

For Georgia and, most likely, for Ukraine, the choice is clear. They have opted for NATO and the United States. But the other countries surrounding Russia have some serious thinking to do.

And Russia has to answer an equally important question: What are the criteria for determining those genuinely essential national interests in the name of which it is justified to use military force?

Fourth, Russia's harsh reaction has demonstrated that the West's strategy of systematically taking over the geopolitical inheritance of the Soviet Union has run its course. The United States and its European allies also find themselves facing a dilemma: either they must move to a full containment of Moscow's growing ambitions or they must endeavor to find a balance of interests with Russia and acknowledge its right to a special position within its sphere of influence.

Fifth, we can see a fragmentation of the West and its fundamental institutions, NATO most of all. The United States is overburdened with its current military and political obligations. Europe is divided between the decisive and the timid. As a result, it is difficult to reach decisions with NATO and, particularly, the European Union.

The conflict surrounding Georgia may be yet another stimulus toward reforming international security structures. It is possible we will see movement toward regional alliances (for example, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, plus the United States) operating in parallel with NATO, which could increasingly be transformed into a political club.

Theoretically, it is possible to discuss the creation of a new security system that includes Russia. But judging from the West's reaction, such a system seems highly unlikely.

Incompatible Horizons

Sixth, the Georgia conflict has revealed a conceptual problem in U.S.-Russia relations -- incompatible strategic horizons.

Russia is a global power with regional ambitions. That is, it is ready to exchange its opportunities in distant regions like Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East in exchange for its interests in the regions that border it -- Europe and Eurasia. That is, Moscow has a clear hierarchy of its priorities.

The United States is a superpower with global ambitions. A global leader does not have secondary interests. It isn't possible to sacrifice anything or make trades because if something starts to totter in one place, it could trigger a domino effect. Therefore, everyone else must be pushed back as much as possible. As a result, no constructive dialogue is possible.

Seventh, we see a clear crisis in the established apparatus of global politics. The forms of relations were developed in the 1990s -- the absence of systemic confrontation, strategic partnership, movement toward a united world based on common assumptions, the domination of "soft" power over hard.

The result was not like the Cold War (there was no ideological confrontation), but rather resembled 19th-century-style competition. Ideo-political confusion just intensifies the imbalances that are already rapidly accumulating in the world. The rules and norms of international relations that operated during the Cold War period were destroyed over the last 10 years. But new ones have not yet emerged.

Fyodor Lukyanov is the editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs. 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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