Accessibility links

Little War, Big Problem - Kirchick in 'Commentary'

RFE/RL writer-at-large James Kirchick reviews "A Little War that Shook the World" by Ronald D. Asmus in Commentary Magazine. The book extensively details the origins and alarming implications of the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict.


Little War, Big Problems

By James Kirchick | Commentary Magazine

July/August 2010

A Little War that Shook the World:

Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West

By Ronald D. Asmus
Palgrave MacMillan, 272 Pages

No current national leader possesses more cunning than Vladimir Putin. Even his present position as Russia's prime minister and putative second-in-command allows for a degree of strategic cover that the former president has been keen to exploit. Indeed, if we go as far as to accept the unlikely premise that the Machiavellian Russian nationalist is in fact subordinate to current President Dmitri Medvedev, we still must acknowledge that we are stuck with the Kremlin that Putin built.

Putin's sharp rise (and dubious abdication) has been nearly untainted by failure. What the Obama administration now touts as a policy "reset" is, from the Russian view, merely the West's rightful acknowledgement of Moscow's power and influence. Those trying to pinpoint exactly when and how Putin's vision of a revanchist Russia went kinetic would do well to recall the 1999 attack on Chechnya. But, as Ron Asmus's new book, A Little War that Shook the World, details, muscular Putinism was first tested outside the borders of the Russian Federation with the invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008. Asmus, a high-ranking State Department official in the Clinton administration, argues that this was a war that was aimed not only at Georgia but at Washington, NATO and the West more generally.

In this analysis, popular debates about alleged Georgian provocations or the psychological stability of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili distract from what was, and remains, the fundamental issue: will Russia respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and allow them to make their own decisions about alliances?

There is a concomitant question of no less importance: how will Europe and the broader West choose to respond to Russian action? If the 2008 conflict with Georgia is any indication, the answer is "poorly." After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western leaders inscribed what was to become the cardinal rule of post Cold War Europe. The 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe asserted that the continent's borders would no longer be decided by force.

This proposition undoubtedly reflected an appealing sentiment. But while the newly independent, post-Soviet states expressed a near-unanimous desire to go west, in Asmus's words, a resentful and spurned Russia was transmogrifying into the neo-imperialist power it has since become. And

Western governments, rather than confront this disturbing turn early and head on, were instead seduced by faulty arguments about the inflated importance of Russia's role in the world.

Two separatist Georgian territories, whose contested status was one of the residues of the Soviet Union¹s collapse, were targeted by Russia long before the 2008 invasion. Russian nationalists consider Georgian sovereignty to be less sacrosanct than that of almost any other former Soviet state, due in part to the Georgian origins of many Russian leaders, including Josef Stalin. It is a bias that goes back to the annexation of the country in 1921, when the Bolsheviks crushed a nascent independent Georgian republic.

At the end of the Cold War, the tiny enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been absorbed into Georgia. While the territories are mostly populated by ethnic Georgians, the local minorities speak their own languages and support a nominal independence that would in actuality mean vassalage to Russia.

South Ossetian separatists resisted the creation of an independent Georgia by launching a civil war. Fighting ended temporarily in 1992, with Georgia maintaining control of the province but granting it wide-ranging autonomy and allowing in a small contingent of Russian peacekeepers. Conflict erupted again in 2004 before a fragile cease-fire was reached later in the same year. While the presence of Russian troops in territory recognized internationally as Georgian might have seemed fairly innocuous during the liberalizing reign of Boris Yeltsin from 1991 to 1999, it proved to be a major force of instability once Vladimir Putin succeeded him and began moving Russia back onto an authoritarian path. The garrisoning of Russian soldiers and materiel in Georgia represented, in Asmus¹s words, the "original sin" of the "frozen conflicts."

What, then, unfroze them? As Asmus tells it, it was NATO. On April 2, 2008, representatives of the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered in Bucharest, Romania, to decide whether to invite Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Debate was tense. The Bucharest summit exposed the divide between those nations that wanted to expand the alliance (the United States and the countries of Eastern Europe) and those nations wary of doing anything that might raise the Kremlin¹s ire, most notably Germany.

Ultimately, the alliance decided against welcoming Georgia and Ukraine into the fold. But the NATO leadership nonetheless announced that membership for the two post-Soviet nations would be a long-term goal. According to Asmus, this half-measure led to the Russian invasion of Georgia four months later. However the Russians interpreted the Bucharest summit, it is indisputable that just two weeks later, they began to beef up their "peacekeeping" contingents in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Partisans in the Russian-Georgia conflict have debated endlessly about which side is chiefly responsible for sparking the August 2008 war. Both have presented evidence of aerial bombardments, troop deployments, the movements of tank columns, and the like, all indicating that one country ought to be held legally responsible for initiating the war. Asmus marshals evidence of his own that convincingly shows that the Georgian government of President Saakashvili had little choice but to attack the Ossetian separatist militias, which were being reinforced by the steady buildup of Russian troops.

Critics of American policy toward Russia say that the United States "excluded" and "encircled" Russia during the post Cold War period of NATO expansion. Such claims have always been too solicitous toward Kremlin paranoia. Asmus points out that "Russia was a full partner to and participant in these [post Cold War] negotiations, and these agreements all bear the signature of the President of the Russian Federation." The truth is that under the leadership of the exuberantly pro-Western Saakashvili, Georgia inevitably became the "whipping boy for Russian complaints and resentments that had been building for years," as Asmus writes.

A Little War that Shook the World aptly identifies both the tactical and conceptual mistakes that precipitated the war, finding fault with a West that was asleep at the wheel (ignoring clear signs of destabilization and failing to take preventive measures) and a Russia outraged at another former satellite's westward aspirations. But if Asmus is correct in his assessment of the war's importance, he is less convincing about how it could have been averted. Asmus admits that formally initiating the NATO membership process for Georgia and Ukraine two years ago would not have been enough to dissuade the Russians from acting aggressively, that what was needed to stop the invasion of Georgia was something deeper: a more resilient alliance itself.

That alliance must be composed of nations fully appreciative of the "shared values" about which one hears at every transatlantic gathering. Moreover, those nations must share a belief in spreading these values eastward, an understanding of the external threats to their preservation, and a commitment to building and equipping the militaries needed to defend them. "The only deterrent to Russia," Asmus writes, "would have been a unified and powerful signal of NATO commitment that enlargement was indeed inevitable and that trying to stop it would have real consequences."

But given the post-martial attitude of many Europeans and the increasingly widespread belief that Russia does indeed deserve to have what Putin calls spheres of "privileged interests" in the former Soviet space, it¹s unclear how much the NATO alliance is even worth these days. Russia remains in violation of the cease-fire negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy; it has not retreated to the pre-invasion borders, and has increased its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover, Russia formally recognizes them as independent republics. "The West never came close to convincing Moscow to return to the political or military status quo ante," Asmus writes. Tensions between Russia and Georgia remain high, and the possibility of another war is very much a reality.

Since this book has been published, Russia made headlines by forging a deal to control Ukraine's Crimean naval base through 2042. If an unwillingness to defend the "cardinal rule" of post Cold War Europe with anything other than diplomatic complaints becomes the norm, Russian assertiveness will no longer seem so world-shaking. Under such conditions, it will most likely be Vladimir Putin whom history remembers as the initiator of a Russian reset.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to the New Republic.