The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Maybe we’ve got it all wrong… (updated)

August 20, 2008

No matter what their take on culpability for the Russo-Georgian War, almost all commentators in the west agree that Russia emerged the undisputed victor: Georgia lies prostrate at its feet, a divided NATO issues empty and inconsequential threats against it, and no one has any doubt that the Russian Bear is back. A number of observers note that Russia lost the “propaganda war,” but present that fact as more of a consolation prize than anything else.

But what if we’ve all got it wrong? After a brief conversation today, I can see a rather different interpretation. If events play out in their current trajectory, Mikheil Saakashvili might turn out to be the real winner.

The dominant narrative by pro-Georgian pundits has been that Russia provoked Georgia into attacking South Ossetia to provide a pretext for the kind of overwhelming Russian intervention we saw in the conflict. This, in theory, excuses the Georgians for their key act of escalation on August 7th.

But I’ve heard some chatter lately in support of a different theory: that the Georgians attacked South Ossetia to provoke the Russians into overreacting. The interesting thing about this theory, I think, is that it highlights the possible gains the conflict has brought to Saakashvili.

Let’s start with Saakashvili’s campaign promise to retake Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili, as I’ve noted before, sunk an enormous amount of political capital into this pledge. But there’s really no way that Saakashvili could have made good on the promise. Abkhazia and South Ossetia weren’t going to voluntarily reintegrate into Georgia, and any attack on them would, as recent events conclusively demonstrate, lead to a massively unequal fight between Russia and Georgia.

For Saakashvili, then, the August War allowed him to demonstrate his nationalist credentials. He was, after all, willing to take on the Russians to seize back Georgian territory. But it also effectively removes the reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Georgian political table. No one in Georgia can reasonably expect Saakashvili to take back the two territories now.

At the same time, the Saakashvili convinced the west that is Georgia, in effect, the victim of Russian aggression. From the very start, Saakashvili framed the conflict in terms of a small, democratic regime under siege from the evil, authoritarian Russians. From John McCain to the editorial page of The New York Times, to the Bush Administration itself, most of the major voices in the United States–on both the left and the right–ate it up.

The Georgians, as the Times noted, might not be blameless, but that didn’t excuse the Russian’s aggressive defense of South Ossetia and their retaliation for attacks on their “peacekeepers” there. Many Europeans also eventually moved towards the same understanding of the conflict: even Germany’s Chancellor Merkel voiced support for Georgia, sidestepping the question of who started the conflict.

Saakashvili kept the drumbeat going on supposed Russian atrocities, war crimes, and increasing aggression. The bulk of the western press reported every accusation; although reporters often diligently put the accusations in quotations and noted that their sources were Georgian officials, the claims easily overwhelmed such nuance. Of course, it does look like both sides showed little restraint, and there is evidence of ethnic cleansing–with or without the aid of Russian troops–by South Ossetians and Abkhazians. But it wouldn’t be the first time nationalist leaders were willing to provoke such actions in order to gain international support.

What else has Saakashvili gained? A promise of massive assistance from the West and possibly better prospects for Georgian NATO membership.

What have the Russians lost? I’ve mocked the notion that NATO has significant leverage over Russia, but the fact is that Moscow now faces a much more hostile Europe and the United States, the chance that the Europeans will actually consider taking steps to reduce their dependence on Russian energy, a previously stalled US-Poland deal on ballistic missile defenses, and major complications in their relations with Ukraine.

Thus, while it is true that the US and NATO can do little to coerce Russia into doing whatever the west wants it to, none of these outcomes are particularly positive from Moscow’s perspective.

Seem far-fetched? Maybe. But, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve heard chatter from reliable sources to the effect that Saakashvili wanted, in the months before August, a military confrontation with Russia. And Saakashvili quickly put on a performance that reaped enormous dividends in Washington, London, and elsewhere.

Saakashvili might also have expected that things would’ve turned out much better for him: that the west would have provided more active support, that the Russians might have stopped their attacks sooner, and so on. If so, he clearly miscalculated.

Despite all of this, my central point still stands: we can make a strong case that, barring any major surprises, Saakashvili has emerged the real winner of the conflict. The Russians certainly achieved an overwhelming military victory, but we should recall Clausewitz’s adage that “war is politics by other means.” On those terms, discussion of a Russian “victory” may prove premature.

Clarification: I’m not saying that I endorse this view, nor that Saakashvili will even be in power a year from now. I’m also certainly not saying that the complete defeat of the Georgian military at the hands of the Russians was Saakashvili’s ideal outcome. My main goals are (1) to highlight that the gains and losses of the conflict are more complicated than the emerging “consensus” interpretation in the United States suggests and (2) to point out that, given Saakashvili’s apparent willingness to accept risks, it is not completely implausible that he viewed a “disproportionate” Russian reaction as something short of the worst possible outcome of the attack on South Ossetia.

One more thought: I can’t help wondering if one of the ironies of the Russians having effectively kicked out American oil companies is that the United States, unlike Germany, has no large domestic commercial lobby in favor of good relations with Russia. Contrast with a far more authoritarian country: the People’s Republic of China.

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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.