The European Union is in danger of becoming the greatest long-term casualty of the Russian-Georgian conflict.
The EU's foreign policy apparatus has been exposed as ineffectual, its minor diplomatic victories as nothing more than window-dressing covering up major strategic reverses. The bloc's vision of peaceful integration through democratic and economic reforms, which enabled it to transform the eastern half of the continent over the past decade, now has a serious question mark hanging over it. August 8 -- the day Russian troops entered Georgia -- was in a sense Europe's 9/11, regardless of parallel claims for Russia made by President Dmitry Medvedev.
Alternatively, as Timothy Garton Ash predicts in "The Guardian" of September 11, 8/8 may become shorthand for a very low point in the history of the "liberal international order." Garton Ash's liberal world order has, of course, been inextricably intertwined with the rise of the EU as a global actor. Little changed in Russia itself on 8/8, but for Europe, "reality changed," as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner put it on September 6 after crisis talks in Avignon with his EU counterparts.
In the wake of 8/8, the EU's illusions of emancipation have been rudely shattered and the bloc's capabilities found desperately wanting. U.S. security guarantees remain a "vital national interest" for all European countries, one of the EU's preeminent foreign-policy strategists, Robert Cooper, concluded in a recent interview with RFE/RL
Quite plainly, the EU lacks adequate mechanisms for coping with this kind of crisis. In its efforts to be taken seriously by Russia, it has failed to come up with a realistic strategy to counter Moscow's aggression.
The EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy has turned out to be a institutional fiction. Instead, the EU has had to resort to emergency meetings and ad hoc diplomacy. There was no place, for example, for the bloc's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, at the side of French President Nicolas Sarkozy when the latter traveled to Moscow on August 12 as the head of the country that currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
Worse, the EU is nearly paralyzed by a fragmentation of the will, a condition which was in ample evidence at the EU-Ukraine summit in Paris on September 9. On that occasion, in a feat of extreme verbal contortionism, the EU promised Ukraine everything but a guaranteed prospect of membership. Most EU member states fear Ukraine may already face a real threat from Russia, yet the bloc's strategic interests were nowhere in sight at the ambassadorial meetings in Brussels preceding the summit, where the Netherlands and other member states skeptical of enlargement argued that giving Ukraine a binding pledge of membership would be too unpopular back home.
Neither has the EU done anything to match the U.S. diplomatic "surge" in which top State Department officials have visited Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, not to mention Georgia. Again, the bloc's 27 member states have conspicuously failed to marshal the requisite collective resolve.
True, the EU has had some success in mediating an end to the conflict itself. On September 8, Sarkozy returned from a second foray to Moscow with a promise of a phased withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia following the deployment of 200 EU civilian monitors.
The EU has, in fact, been the only outside mediator. Its successes, however, remain questionable. Thus, it is arguable that the EU has in effect allowed Russia to get away with a gross breach of international law and cement its de facto annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The price of Russian withdrawal for Georgia has been the increasing Russian entrenchment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. EU officials admit privately that Russia is using its checkpoints in Georgia as a disposable bargaining chip in exchange for more permanent gains in the breakaway provinces.
The EU has also allowed itself to become entangled in seemingly endless disputes with Russia over the small print in the terms it has managed to extract, enabling Moscow to play for time and sow confusion. In the latest installment, Russia now says it never promised to pull its troops out of "independent" South Ossetia or Abkhazia, or to allow EU observers into those provinces.
Nicolas Sarkozy went on record on September 8 as saying all Russian troops must withdraw by October 15 to where they were stationed prior to August 8. As this is unlikely to happen, the EU has simply prepared the ground for another standoff next month -- something for which Russia appears to have an insatiable appetite.
Meanwhile, South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's secession has become a fait accompli and a dangerous precedent for Russia's other neighbors, some of them EU member states who take that threat very seriously. Even though Finland has traditionally been difficult to alarm, its president, Tarja Halonen, went on record as telling the French daily "Le Monde" of September 11 that "we cannot rule out a military conflict in our region." She also pointedly observed to "Helsingin Sanomat" on August 27 that "Finland is one of the few countries in Europe capable of defending itself militarily."
The scheduled talks in Geneva on October 15 on security and stability in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are likely to become a further bone of contention. Moscow insists that representatives from both republics should attend those talks as equal participants, while the EU has said that cannot be allowed.
The EU is quite simply out of its depth in this crisis and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. There can be little better demonstration of this than the fact -- as an EU diplomat told RFE/RL -- that the delegation led by Sarkozy felt compelled to ask Medvedev on September 8 whether Russia is planning to unilaterally redraw the borders of any other neighboring countries. The Russian response was to deny any such intention and to affirm that "Russia is not the Soviet Union."