The Duck of Minerva

Lines in the sand – updated

12 August 2008

[updates after the fold]

Recent developments should give everyone their first major reasons for optimism concerning the Russia-Georgia front (and basically bear out Charles Kings’ analysis). TimesOnline:

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia today ordered a halt to the invasion of Georgia, minutes before Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Moscow to try to negotiate a ceasefire. No one has demobilized, and the Georgians suspicious. If a cease-fire is negotiated, the Europeans, and possibly the US, will do most of the work.

Mr Medvedev said that Georgia had been punished enough for its attack last week on South Ossetia, a separatist Georgian province which has close ties to Russia.

“The security of our peacekeepers and civilians has been restored,” said Mr Medvedev, in a Kremlin meeting that was screened on Russian national television. “The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganised.”

The French President hailed Russia’s move as good news, and a first step in gaining agreement between the warring sides.

“A ceasefire now has to take shape,” said Mr Sarkozy said, who aims to persuade Mr Medvedev to accept a Europe-backed blueprint for peace. “We must draw up a rapid calendar so that each side can go back to the positions of before the crisis.”

French officials travelling with Mr Sarkozy privately gave their opinion that Moscow had cleanly outmanoeuvered and outfought Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian President, after his ill-advised gambit to retake South Ossetia.

Negotiators now aim to limit the human and diplomatic damage caused by five days of fighting, and to find a structure for keeping the peace in the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The most recent reports indicate continued, but sporadic, fighting–as well as a push by separatists to drive Georgian forces completely out of Abkhazia.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that the Georgians remain suspicious in their official statements. The Europeans, and possibly the United States, will likely do much of the work in negotiating what happens next.

I want to call attention to a very clever aspect of Bush’s strongly worded statement on the conflict. Bush drew a very clear line between Russia’s broader attacks–and any attempt at “regime change” in Georgia–and the defense of South Ossetia (a distinction also drawn in a number of other western statements). AFP:

“Russia’s government must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward resolving this conflict,” he said.

“Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world. And these actions jeopardize Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe,” Bush warned.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. There’s evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city,” said Bush.

Everyone should recognize the subtext: “you can do what you want in South Ossetia, but keep your hands off of Tblisi” (cf. my comments below on “spheres of influence”).

The statement also left room for ambiguity concerning Abkhazia, as Bush makes no mention of operations there. Which is wise. Georgia wasn’t going to get it back before, and they’re certainly not getting in back now.

While some pundits, if they take their own analogies to their logical conclusion, will be comparing South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the Sudetenland (or, more likely, they’ll be too busy praising Bush to worry about consistency), the fact is that this concession draws a pretty reasonable line in the sand.

Unfortunately for Saakashvili, it also signals just how badly his offensive failed.

For the US and Europe, there’s at least one “silver lining” to all of this: a chance to rebuild transatlantic cooperation, not least because one of the key bones of contention is now pretty clearly off the table.

… Rob Farley links to Jonathan Landay piece contradicting reports that the Bush Administration encouraged the Georgians to move on South Ossetia. Rob notes that, although the administration is likely in CYA mode right now, Landay’s piece seems pretty plausible. As I noted when I linked to the earlier report, the nature of the claim was pretty ambiguous.

Rob also makes an important point: the Georgians might have believed that the US would support them even though US officials intended to warn them off of engaging in overly provocative behavior.

… Well, this isn’t shocking.

… And neither is this.

… And other recent developments in the “quelle surprise” category… Tblisi and Moscow trade words over whether the Russians have ceased attacks; a number of reports indicate the offensive to clear Georgian forces from the Kodori Gorge (and hence from all of Abkhazia) continue. Georgians rally in support of their country and leadership while Medvedev calls Saakashvilli a “lunatic” and denounces the South Ossetian offensive as “genocide.” Tblisi, for its part, claims it will sue Russia for “ethnic cleansing” in the ICJ.

The “six principles” agreed to by Sarkozy and Medvedev reportedly amount to:

“The first is not to resort to the use of force. The second is to halt all military action. The third is free access to humanitarian aid. The fourth is that Georgian Armed Forces should return to their bases. The fifth is that Russian Armed Forces should pull back to their positions prior to combat,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a news conference with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy.

“The sixth is the beginning of international discussions on the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and on ways to ensure their security,” he added.

Matthew Lee of the AP reports that McCain may actually get his wish: the west is contemplating “punishing” Russia by, among other things, turning the G-8 back into the G-7. Guess who won’t be coming to dinner?

This strikes me as a relatively meaningless, and probably counterproductive, gesture. If the goal is to prevent Russia from intervening in the remaining western-oriented “near abroad” states, there are a number of more concrete steps available that don’t involve freezing Russia out of a diplomatic club.

And because it’s never too early for premature attempts to assess ultimate “strategic meanings,” or just to keep score, Ian Traynor and Ian Black argue that the Russian Bear is back, and Putin’s shown that he’s a master of realpolitik:

In the tussle for supremacy in a vital strategic region, the balance has tilted. Russia has successfully deployed its firepower in another country with impunity for the first time since communism’s collapse.

“This is not the Russia of 93 or 94, a terribly weakened Russia,” said a European official. “The Russians are now negotiating from a position of strength.”

The impact of Mikheil Saakashvili’s rash gamble storming South Ossetia last week and of Vladimir Putin’s comprehensive rout of the Georgians will ripple in many directions.

In less than a week, Putin has redrawn the geopolitical map of the contested region between Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

“We don’t look very good,” said a former Pentagon official long involved in Georgia. “We’ve been working on [Georgia] for four years and we’ve failed. Everyone’s guilty. But Putin is playing his cards brilliantly. He knows exactly what he’s doing and the consequences are all negative.”

While Russia walks tall, Saakashvili will struggle to survive as one of the world’s youngest presidents. The Europeans are already divided and vulnerable to charges of indecision and impotence. Nato splits over Georgia and Ukraine will widen. American policies in the region have been severely set back. Western energy policy is looking flaky.

“This was a proxy war, not about South Ossetia, but about Moscow drawing a red line for the west,” said Alexander Rahr, Russia expert at Germany’s Council on Foreign Relations and a biographer of Putin. “They marched into Georgia to challenge the west. And the west was powerless. We’re dealing with a new Russia.”

It isn’t that I disagree with Traynor or Black. Rather, I think that most analysts understood the shifts in power prior to the last week. The conflict, if it continues to unfold as we expect, simply demonstrates pre-existing “facts on the ground.”

• Russia’s military still can’t challenge NATO, but it remains more than a match for potential adversaries in its “near abroad,” including Georgia.

• If Russia wants to pursue military action against said countries, there’s not much the US and Europe can do about it. The west has little economic leverage (in fact, interdependence influence favors Moscow right now), and no one seriously expects the US or the Europeans to risk a great-power war, let alone one with a nuclear power, over Georgia or similarly situated states.

In many respects, though, Russia remains a decidedly second-tier great power. It can’t seriously threaten (in conventional terms) the United States, or even, when it comes down to it, most of the EU countries.

We’re in for a lot of hand-wringing about divisions within Europe and between some of the major European powers and the United States. But many of these divisions can be resolved by patience and a willingness to compromise.

Between “Cold Warriors” and “Appeasers” lies a number of reasonable positions on Russia, including one that focuses on reinforcing–mostly in political but perhaps even in military terms–the existing contours of the NATO alliance while engaging Russia as a great power that–despite the still-unfolding conflict over Georgia–still shares many common interests with the US and its allies. Contemporary Russia is neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany; a better analogy, perhaps, is with the old Russian Empire. Russia wants status, wealth, and predominance in what it considers its sphere of influence.

Only the last goal brings it into conflict with the US, and perhaps it is time that a less subtle, and more credible, discussion of precisely what that sphere of influence entails needs to happen. It obviously cannot include the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania–and this is one reason why NATO cohesion must be at the top of the US agenda. But there’s something odd in claims that “sphere of influence” are somehow inherently immoral; the real issue seems to be that, in a “unipolar world,” a bid for a sphere of influence means relatively less influence for the US.

The US needs to recognize, I might add, that Georgian membership in NATO is dead for the forseeable future, and, more importantly, that pushing the issue does little good for the larger goals of the alliance.

But that doesn’t preclude a renewed US bilateral commitment to reconstruction and economic reform in Georgia, and otherwise making more palliative what seems basically inevitable: that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will never reintegrate with Georgia on Tblisi’s terms.

What all of this means for Ukraine, however, remains uncertain.

There are some reasons for optimism. The Russians are already building a new naval base at Novorossiisk, which is probably a long-term positive for pro-western factions in Ukraine, insomuch as it reduces the strategic importance of Sevastopol.

However, given the current uncertainty surrounding Ukrainian domestic politics, as well as the current lack of any conflict equivalent to the recently thawed ones in the Caucasus, there’s little pressure on either the west or the Russians to take decisive action. And that’s almost certainly a very good thing, if everyone’s goal is, as it ought to be, long-term accommodation without appeasement.

… For more on the return of great-power politics, see Peter Grier’s piece at CSM.