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Interview: Georgia's 'Little War' Raises Big Questions

Ronald Asmus
Ronald Asmus
Was the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia a fight over small separatist provinces? Or did it represent something larger?

The latter, says Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and author of the recently released "A Little War That Shook The World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West."

Asmus tells RFE/RL's James Kirchick that leaders in Europe and the United States have yet to grasp the war's full meaning.

RFE/RL: Why does this tiny country in the Caucasus have implications for the United States?

Ronald Asmus:
This war is all about the rules of the game in European security. And I think most Americans, perhaps even including people like me, thought five years ago that we had successfully all but completed a post-Cold War European security architecture that had rendered war in Europe impossible and had allowed the United States to shift its strategic focus away from Europe to new hotspots in the wider Middle East.

And the key moment in that was the [2002 NATO] Prague Summit where we completed the so-called "big bang" enlargement of NATO [to] Central and East Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

I think what this war showed was that Russia no longer believes in those rules of the game, because those rules of the game were based, among other things, on the rights of countries to choose their own path and their own alliances.

And as I argued in the book, the fundamental cause of the war was not ethnicity, was not Abkhazia or South Ossetia. This was a war that was fought over Georgia's desire to go West and Russia's determination to stop it from going West.

RFE/RL: If Georgia had a different leader at the time, someone no less oriented toward the West but less of a "hothead," would this have played out differently?

I think that people are too focused on the personality and figure of [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili. The Russians hated [former Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze as much if not more than they hated Saakashvili. Shevardnadze is still the darling of the West for many people given his role in German unification. Five years ago, Misha [Saakashvili] was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was the hero. Now many people consider him the goat.

He wasn't the problem. Had he not been there but had you had another Georgian leader who was just as determined to go West, we would have had the same conflict. This was not a conflict of personalities. This was a conflict of aspirations, geopolitical interests, and then maybe the personalities of [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and Saakashvili added an additional 10, 15, or 20 percent of drama to it.

But that's not what it's all about. And that's why even if Saakashvili wasn't there, and 80, 75 percent of Georgians still want to go West, the underlying conflict remains unresolved.

U.S.-Europe Differences

RFE/RL: What do you say to critics who allege that Georgia would pull NATO and the United States into a war with Russia, and that the risks of bringing Georgia into NATO simply outweigh the benefits?

That's the same argument they used for the Baltic states, for West Berlin, for West Germany. It's an argument that's been used for 40 or 50 years.

The big debate, and the difference that we've had with some of our European allies in this period, was over the following issue: should you embrace the Georgians to give them confidence and security to make them more relaxed, secure, and predictable actors, or by embracing them, were we emboldening them to do things we didn't want them to do.

I am firmly in the first category and I don't think we embraced them enough. But other people including many European foreign ministers and leaders were in the second category. And that's one of several reasons why we never had a common Western approach to Georgia and Russia.

Let's remember: The Georgians may have fired the first shot in response to what they thought was a Russian invasion that was coming. But this conflict was fought on Georgian soil.

RFE/RL: You argue that there was less interest in the Caucasus on behalf of Europeans and Americans than there was in the Balkans. What do you think accounts for that?

In the early '90s we pushed very hard -- we the United States with the Swedes -- to get the Russian troops out of the Baltic states. Had we not done that, the Baltic states would never have been able to join NATO 10 years later.

We did not push hard to get Russian troops out of Georgia. Because we didn't care as much, to be quite honest. When it came to resolving the frozen conflicts, we had weak missions that were largely emasculated and largely powerless by the OSCE and UN in the Southern Caucasus.

We built stronger missions, cared more, we had our best diplomats, negotiators, and advisers in the Balkans because that was a strategic priority in the West to prevent wars from happening, to stop them and to try to build peace."

Russia Returns To Near Abroad

RFE/RL: Clearly there's a discrepancy between certain European powers and the United States in their commitment to have Georgia be a part of NATO, a part of the European community. How bridgeable is that gap?

Today, you don't have to go very far to find people who are willing to concede that they're willing to live with some version, a modern-day version, of a sphere of influence for Russia in the Southern Caucasus. Well now we're down to the basics of what are the foundations of a new European security order and did all those wonderful principles of the [1990] Charter [of Paris] that apply to Central and Eastern Europe, apply to the Balkans, but don't apply to the Southern Caucasus, or do we mean it for the entire OSCE area?

In which case, should we remain true to those principles, what does that mean in terms of our policies for that region today? Because they don't have a right to join NATO, but we believe that they have a right to be free, independent, and sovereign and not be in a sphere of influence.

And I always remind people that the reason we wrote the Charter of Paris [one of the key documents setting out the terms for post-Cold War European security] the way we did, is because we had concluded at the end of the Cold War, with the Russia of that day, that spheres of influence do not produce stability but instability.

RFE/RL: Try to connect this to Kyrgyzstan, where there was a "colored" revolution five years ago, which turned sour, and the Russians are now coming off looking very good in that country. What do you think the implications are for that event in terms of Russia in its "near abroad" and is the image of Russia changing in the former Soviet space?

I think Russia has a clear sense of its vision, a clear sense of its strategy, and it's playing offense and we're playing defense. And I think you see this in Ukraine, I think you see this in Georgia, I think you see this in Kyrgyzstan.

And I think we need to regroup, debate what we really want, what we really think of the principles we've tried to articulate over the last 20 years. Leave EU and NATO enlargement aside as the next set of issues, It's really now about the independence and sovereignty of these countries and whether they really have any of these rights to align themselves with the West. And there's a debate about whether they're ready and whether we want to embrace them.

We're back to some basic issues. The closer you get to Russia's borders, the more sensitive it is for Russia. But it tests our commitment to the universality of these values and principles."