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Former U.S. Diplomat: Chances Of Another Russia-Georgia Conflict 'Can't Be Ruled Out'

Dr. Ronald Asmus
Dr. Ronald Asmus
Ron Asmus was a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, and currently heads the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. He spoke to RFE/RL Georgian Service director David Kakabadze about the EU's special report, issued September 30, on the Russia-Georgia war. These are excerpts of that interview.

RFE/RL: The rhetoric between Russia and Georgia has gotten more and more heated since the report. Was it smart of the EU to commission this inquiry?

Ron Asmus: The European Union a year ago, when it commissioned this report, couldn't deal with the fact that there were such vastly different views on what had happened and why. It hoped that an independent commission could help answer those questions. I think we see that this report by this independent commission will not fully answer these questions.

Everyone now says we should look forward. And that's correct. But we should look forward while learning the lessons of the past. I read that report -- and I've written a book on the war, too, which will be coming out in a couple of months -- and it confirms my view that this war was fought because Georgia wanted to go West, and Russia wanted to stop it. Well, that conflict has not gone away. That conflict is still there.

The report says, in very careful words, that the conflict took place because the peacekeeping arrangements on the ground were inadequate. Are we sure that the current conflict-prevention mechanisms on the ground are good enough to prevent another war? I'm not so sure.

The conflict is still there. The presence on the ground is still weak. And the chances of another conflict at some point in the future can't be ruled out. So in addition to having this debate over what happened, we should be having debate over what [we are] going to do. What are we going to do differently to make sure that there's never another war in Georgia again, or that we can see other crises coming, in Ukraine or elsewhere?

RFE/RL: You say the war took place because Georgia wanted to go West and Russia wanted to stop it. Does the EU see it that way?

Asmus: I'm not sure, to be quite honest. Many people think this war was fought over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I don't believe it was. If you read [the report], it becomes quite clear that this wasn't a war between Georgians and separatists, this was a war between Georgia and Russia.

For me, the underlying problem is the clash between the core Helsinki principle that each and every country in the OSCE has the right to choose its own foreign policy and its own alliances, and the Russian claim to have a sphere of influence or a sphere of privileged interest. And on that issue, the report doesn't talk about Georgia's right to go West, but it does say that Russia's claim to have a sphere of influence is illegal.

If Georgia had abandoned its aspirations to join NATO, if it had abandoned its aspirations to go West and be a successful democratic country, this war wouldn't have happened, in my view. And I'm not saying Georgia should have. The question is, if Georgia's right to do that is legitimate, why were we so weak in protecting Georgia's right to pursue its own foreign policy course?

I think the debate we need to have in the West is, do we agree with the report when it says there is no legal basis for Russian sphere of influence? What do we think are legitimate and what are illegitimate Russian interests? And where do we the West draw the line and say this kind of Russian behavior is unacceptable and therefore we need to support Georgia and other countries? Unfortunately, those are issues that the report doesn't get into.

RFE/RL: What are the prospects for Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration? Is it dead?

Asmus: No, it's not dead. I don't think this report has a huge impact on Georgia's Euro-Atlantic chances one way or the other. What will have an impact is whether the current Georgian government can come up with a strategy toward the occupied territories that makes sense, and above all whether Georgia can get back on the reform track and again become the kind of example of a country that is leading in reform, and if Georgia can become a more attractive partner that the West will embrace again.

At some point, let's stop litigating this war. Georgia has to draw the lesson that the most important thing for it to do is to take the part of the country that it controls and make it the most politically and economically attractive place in the region. And when it succeeds in doing that, the West will find it much easier to make the case that Georgia has to be embraced.

We [in the United States] will have the debate about what we do in NATO, what we do in U.S.-Georgian relations, and about providing you security -- because Georgia will say, correctly, that if it's going to do that, it's much easier to carry out those reforms if Georgia feels more secure. And Georgia today does not feel secure because it was invaded a year and a half ago. So that's the debate that we have to have now.