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Assessing The Global Impact Of Russia's Aggression In Georgia

A section of the Iran-Armenia crossborder gas pipeline
A section of the Iran-Armenia crossborder gas pipeline
In the immediate aftermath of the Russian military intervention in Georgia last month, most diplomats around the world focused on what might be done to resolve, or at least minimize, the international fallout. Most commentators for their part focused on the ways in which this one event might herald a new Cold War.

But already, those two groups are paying less attention both to the former, given that there does not seem to be any obvious solution, and to the latter, insofar as whatever happens will not be comparable to the military and ideological confrontation between East and West after World War II.

Instead, they are considering the myriad ways in which the Georgian events are having an impact on an increasingly large number of more general issues around the world.

Of those issues, the following are among the most important.

Assumptions Shattered

First: the Georgian crisis has shattered many of the assumptions in both East and West about how oil and gas from the Caspian Basin can best be transported to international markets and, as a result, about the relations both between producing and transit countries, and between those two categories and the rest of the world.

Both Caspian Basin oil and gas producers and Western powers have wanted oil and gas export pipelines from that region to bypass Russia, but at the same time ruled out Iran as an alternative. Given the continued standoff between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, that left only one route available, Georgia, and Russian actions there have called into question the security of those pipelines.

As a result, some Caspian Basin states are now considering exporting their hydrocarbons via Russia even if that gives Moscow leverage over them, while some Western countries that want to punish Russia are discussing allowing exports via Iran, and still others are pushing to resolve the Karabakh crisis in order to allow the export of oil and gas via Armenia.

As of now, neither the countries of the region nor any of the major outside powers have reached any final decision, but the mere discussion of these possibilities changes not only the geo-economics of the region but the geopolitics of the world. Such discussion creates the real possibility that old allies may find themselves at odds, while old enemies may start cooperating with each other, possibilities that none of them could have imagined prior to the Georgian crisis.

Questions Of National Defense

Second, Russian intervention has unexpectedly returned questions of national defense to the center of discussions about national security, leading some countries to reassess not only their relationships with neighboring countries, but also their military budgets and their preferred alliances.

Even after the end of the Cold War, no country assumed that military power was irrelevant, but few expected that such power would ever be employed against them. Their military establishments were about national pride or about playing a role in peacekeeping operations, rather than about defending their national existence. Russia's actions in Georgia have demolished that self-confident assumption, and now countries are having to decide whether they must reach an accomodation with neighboring states that might be prepared to use force, form alliances that will actually protect them from such armed aggression, or build up their own military establishments either to ensure that they will be able to preserve their independence, or to serve as a trip wire until the international community can respond.

These issues were not on the table a month ago; they now are in many countries far from Georgia.

Nontraditional Tools

Third, the response of the international community to the Russian-Georgian clash has highlighted the continuing, and perhaps even growing, importance of what might be called nontraditional tools for putting pressure on other countries.

If Russia's actions in Georgia called attention to the continuing importance of military factors, the West's response has highlighted the growing importance of other factors, including, but not limited to, capital flows, visa arrangements, and diplomatic activities. Russia has watched its stock market collapse, the ruble decline in value, and capital flow outward at unprecedented rates. It has forfeited the chance for its citizens to secure visa-free travel to European Union countries in the near future, and faces more restrictions elsewhere. And it has experienced a loss of face as a result of the failure of all but outcast states Belarus and Venezuela to follow its lead in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia; of the West's decision to slow its admission to the World Trade Organization; and of the effective eclipse of the NATO-Russia Council and the G8, which is rapidly reverting to the G7.

These things are definitely hurting Russia and will affect its behavior over time. Yet because they are not capable of forcing the Russian leadership to back down immediately, many in the West and some in Moscow dismiss their importance. But in conflicts of interest that involve major powers, such responses are both safer and more important. And over time, they are likely to prove more effective as well.

Territorial Integrity

Fourth, the events in Georgia have reopened questions about the proper balance between the right of nations to self-determination and the right of states to have their territorial integrity respected by other members of the international community.

The international community, in fact, consists first and foremost of states that have a vested interest in the defense of their territorial integrity and that look with suspicion at the widely proclaimed right of nations to self-determination to an extent that may call the former principle into question. Not surprisingly, most of the time, the world comes down on the side of the former and against the latter, but by its actions in Georgia, Moscow has opened the door to more demands based on the latter. It may well come to regret having done so when its own increasingly restive national minorities formulate such demands.

Fifth, the events of the last month in Georgia have shattered the self-confident assumptions both in the West, where many policymakers believed that clashes between the major powers were a thing of the past, and in the Russian Federation, where many senior officials thought they could act with impunity because the West could neither unite nor respond to Moscow's actions in the so-called "Near Abroad."

Twenty years ago, many in the West were prepared to accept the notion that the world had reached "the end of history," with its corollary assumption that the future would be both nonviolent and dull. The intervening years have cast doubt on that for many, but Russia's actions in Georgia have destroyed that view in the minds of almost all.

Unlike a generation ago, few now expect the future to be peaceful, while many more expect that the 21st century may turn out to be as violent in its way as was the 20th. That disillusion may, in fact, prove to be the most serious and long-lasting consequence of Moscow's aggression in Georgia.

Paul Goble, a longtime specialist on the former Soviet space, is director of research at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA). The views expressed in this analysis are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ADA or RFE/RL.