The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A Conflict of position and maneuver (updated … and updated again … with photoshop-esque graphic)

August 18, 2008

Russia, NATO, Georgia, the Abkhaians… everyone, sensing the final draw-down of the immediate crisis, is trying to, variously, make sense of what it all means, maximize their long-term position, or just stay afloat.

One can only imagine how this is playing out within the Russian military. By this point, just about everyone is saying the same thing: the Russian air force underperformed.

Early reports indicate that pipelines running through Tbilisi from the Caspian Sea oil fields were targeted unsuccessfully by the Russian air force, which employed front-line Tu-22M3 bombers in the conflict. The stout Georgian air defenses, one of the few effective elements of the country’s military, have shot down some Russian Su-25s with shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), say European-based U.S. officials. The heavier SA-11 Buk-1M also appears to have contributed to the Frogfoot strike-fighter losses and was certainly the cause of the Backfire bomber’s loss, say U.S.-based analysts.

These problems may increase the pressure on the Russian military establishment to move away from a highly autarkic defense industry. If I understand matters correctly, Russian procurement of foreign components remains limited, despite Russia’s available cash; buying more “foreign stuff”–to supplement what they already do well–would improve a host of Russian military capabilities.

Regardless, I find it interesting that the Russians utilized what their own revolution-in-military-affairs theorists used to call “remote-strike complex” tactics, and that these worked pretty well… even without the level of integrated capabilities enjoyed by the United States.

But, for our purposes, the more significant developments have less to do with bureaucratic politics and more to do with foreign and strategic policy.

The Russians have announced the their forces have begun pulling out of the “combat zone,” (but don’t appear to be packing their bags yet). Numerous sources report the movement of significant forces into South Ossetia, including SS-21 batteries of the type that the Russians apparently used against Georgia during the “short war.” In conjunction with Russian exercises simulating a cruise-missile attack on Georgia, it looks like a good bet that the Russians intend to continue to put heavy military pressure on Tblisi–and to ensure that they can move even more quickly against Georgia if they so choose.

It isn’t surprising that some commentators worry about the “Finlandization” of Georgia (an unlikely development so long as the current regime lasts… but that’s another matter).

Meanwhile, Rice is on her way to an emergency meeting of NATO. She’ll also swing by Warsaw for the signing of the new missile-defense basing agreement. Steven Erlinger provided a good discussion of NATO’s challenges in yesterday’s International Herald Tribue:

NATO foreign ministers are to gather Tuesday for an emergency meeting on the Russia-Georgia crisis, with the United States looking for more than symbolic gestures, Europe divided and arguments rampant over how to deal with Ukraine.

He continues:

The differences show how hard it is for NATO and Europe to find significant and concrete leverage on Moscow, with the Bush Administration on its last legs and many in Europe blaming the Georgian leadership – supposedly made unrealistic by overenthusiastic American support – as much for the crisis as they do Putin.

“The big Western debate is whether this is about Georgia or Russia,” said Ronald Asmus, director of the Brussels Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund. “Those who want to contain the damage say that Georgia is a little country, partly to blame, and not worth the confrontation with Moscow. Then there are those who say this is really about Russia and the rules of the game for Europe writ large, for the Caspian energy corridor and the right of small countries to choose their own path.”

The European dilemma is clear, said Clifford Kupchan, a director of the Eurasia Group in Washington. “How do they square their increasing energy dependence on Russia with their increasing political discomfort with Putin? It’s a very hard circle to square,” he said.

There are of course the divisions between “old and new Europe” – roughly Western and Eastern Europe, Kupchan said, with new Europe, backed by Britain and Scandinavia, taking a harder line toward Russia, while old Europe “will only be reinforced in its view that Georgia and Ukraine are not ready for NATO.”

After Russia’s behavior, said Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist and Eastern Europe expert at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, “there is little disagreement now in Europe about the nature of the new Russia.”

Those Europeans “who didn’t get it before are getting it now,” Rupnik said. But Europe is divided about what to do about Russia, taking comfort, as usual, “in the idea of mediating between Washington and Moscow.”

This is not Europe’s fight, said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor and columnist for Süddeustche Zeitung. “Europe is torn between old and new Europe. But I don’t see Europe prepared to go to war with itself over Georgia. The European foreign ministers sense this is too big for them, and they will in the end align themselves with the United States, while trying to affect policy.”

The Americans are looking for concrete gestures to punish and warn Russia – perhaps suspending or even canceling the NATO-Russian Council, or as Asmus, formerly a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration suggested, “fast-tracking NATO membership for Ukraine.”

NATO could also begin formal defense planning, including putting in military infrastructure, to defend new NATO members like the Baltic nations and Poland against even a hypothetical war with Russia.

As a gesture to the Russia of President Boris Yeltsin, who grudgingly accepted NATO expansion, Asmus said: “NATO never developed military plans to defend Central and Eastern Europeans, because we said, ‘Russia’s not an enemy and not a threat,’ and we never backed up the new members with exercises and infrastructure.”

During the 1990s, NATO repurposed itself as the military-alliance wing of a democratic security community, a kind of “advance man” for the European Union, and then spent a lot of time trying to figure out how–and under what conditions–it would act as peace-enforcement and intervention force rather than simply a defensive alliance.

Many wondered if, in the face of mixed performance in Afghanistan and an apparent wavering of commitment to that operation by some member states, NATO would not so much die as join the ranks of the undead: a kind of Zombie organization shambling forward without direction or purpose. Now, suddenly, NATO has to decide whether, and to what degree, it wants to take up its core mission again.

To state the obvious, NATO members need to somehow:

1. maintain cohesion;
2. decide what constitutes the unequivocal line in the sand for the alliance; and
3. start thinking about what kind of defense policy they need to effectuate the various gradients of their strategic interests.

As of now, the second and third tasks threaten the first. NATO members continue to disagree on what that line in the sand should be (the Ukraine?* the loss of Georgian independence? The boundaries of the current alliance?). They have different ideas about the tradeoff between, on the one hand, enhancing NATO’s defense and deterrence posture and, on the other hand, undermining the chance to rebuild Russia-NATO cooperation on the not insignificant issues of common interest between them. And, of special note, European energy interdependence with Russia–on both the supply and distribution front–complicate matters even further.

These differences require compromises and concessions. The US need to avoid attempting to ram its vision down NATO’s throat via a coalition with member states from the former Soviet bloc. Other members–and the Germans in particular–need to realize that Russia’s relations with the west require a new form of pragmatism that amounts to more than “don’t piss them off.”

[… and, in that vein, I can’t believe I missed the content of Merkel’s recent statements in Georgia:

“Georgia will never give up a square kilometer of its territory,” Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told a news conference alongside Germany’s Angela Merkel, the latest Western leader to visit Tbilisi and offer support for the country he has led on a pro-Western path, seeking to shake off a history of domination by Moscow.

“I expect a very fast, very prompt withdrawal of Russian troops out of Georgia,” Merkel said in a courtyard at Saakashvili’s official residence. She reiterated a Western promise that Georgia will eventually join NATO, but said she could not say when that would happen.

Finally, a key part of NATOs “grand strategy” must include revitalizing and reopening forms for institutional cooperation with the Russians. NATO and the United States need to show that they can cooperate with the Russians, which means, I submit, not blocking Russian ascension into the WTO or even, for the time being, reverting the G8 back into the G7. Such measures, no matter how satisfying for some, do nothing to help–and may likely hinder–NATO’s ability to meet its key challenges.

Of course, if the Russians don’t leave Georgia proper relatively soon, then some of these options start to make sense.

*Things are getting very interesting in Ukraine. Kiev says it will participate in the US BMD system and President Victor Yushchenko has accused Prime Minister (and rival) Yulia Tymoshenko of collaborating with Russia.

… M K Bhadrakumar, a former Indian Diplomat, provides an interesting take on China’s position to the crisis in the Asia Times.

As of Monday night on the US east coast, a number of independent reports claim that the Russians remain very close to Tblisi. A number of opposition groups in Georgia are endorsing NATO membership for the country.

US rhetoric continues to heat up:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that Russia is playing a “very dangerous game” with the U.S. and its allies and warned that NATO would not allow Moscow to win in Georgia, destabilize Europe or draw a new Iron Curtain through the continent.

But with no sign of Russia withdrawing its troops from Georgia despite a pledge to do so and indications it has moved short-range ballistic missiles into the disputed area of South Ossetia, it was unclear how the alliance would make good on Rice’s vow.

On her way to an emergency NATO foreign ministers meeting on the crisis, Rice said the alliance would punish Russia for its invasion of Georgia and deny its ambitions by rebuilding and fully backing Georgia and other Eastern European democracies.

“We are determined to deny them their strategic objective,” Rice told reporters aboard her plane, adding that any attempt to re-create the Cold War by drawing a “new line” through Europe and intimidating former Soviet republics and ex-satellite states would fail.

“We are not going to allow Russia to draw a new line at those states that are not yet integrated into the trans-Atlantic structures,” she said, referring to Georgia and Ukraine, which have not yet joined NATO or the European Union but would like to.

Rice could not say what NATO would eventually decide to do to make its position clear but said the alliance would speak with one voice “to clearly indicate that we are not accepting a new line.”

Moscow, in what may be the international equivalent of a “you can’t fire me, I quit” move, says it will “review” its relationship to NATO.

Although I’m obviously not in favor of Russia undermining democratic governments, I do think it is always useful to consider how one side’s signals might be interpreted by the other side. In that spirit, I present the following illustration:

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.