The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Rob Farley works his way through the Georgia-Russia quagmire

August 9, 2008

Rob Farley writes a very thoughtful post where he lays out his take, for the moment, on the Russia-Georgia conflict. Indeed, he leaves me feeling a bit embarrassed, as my own writing this afternoon was pretty inelegant.

To be a bit less muddled, I am less sympathetic to the Georgian case because I think that escalating the war (and providing an excuse for Russian counter-escalation) was a damn stupid thing for Saakashvili to do, and a remarkably damn stupid thing for him to do absent an extremely compelling cause. Small, weak states living next to abrasive, unpredictable great powers need to be extremely careful about what they do; in most cases, their foreign policy should, first and foremost, be about avoiding war with the great power. This is what Saakashvili failed to do. The war didn’t need to escalate; it was a Georgian decision to move from the village skirmishes that were happening on Tuesday to the siege of Tsikhinvali on Thursday.

He covers a lot of additional ground, including why observers shouldn’t underestimate the Russian army.

I thought I would reproduce an edited version of the comment I left over at LGM; in brief, I think Rob covers most of the relevant bases. Both the Georgian and the Russian regime have a great deal at stake, and this will make it difficult for either side to back down without some very creative diplomacy (as academic international-relations types might put it: we’re in the very dangerous realm of high audience costs).

A big problem for Saakashvili and the Georgians, moreover, is that the Russians, whether or not they orchestrated matters, were clearly ready to move significant forces into Georgia.

Are the Russians seeking regional hegemony? Of course. Are the Georgians angels? Of course not. Part of the reason I’ve stressed my frustration with Saakashvili, I think, stems from my sense that he’s blundered badly and that, at bottom, I’d like to see Georgia a peaceful and stable place. I’m frustrated with Saakashvili for putting so much political emphasis on restoring Georgian territorial integrity (and there is no frigging way they’re getting Abkhazia back), and now for pursuing this risky attack. Not only are a lot of people getting killed, but the Georgians will need some serious luck to pull anything good out of it.

And it looks, at least for now, like we’re dealing with significant, and negative, political externalities. Georgia’s chances for further integration plummeted decisively over the last twenty-four hours, and it will be even more complicated to get the Georgia-Turkey pipeline in place. Saakashvili’s also made life very difficult for his backers in the United States.

I’ve talked to people who’ve met with Saakashvili in the last few months. They describe him as haggard and worried–under constant pressure from both domestic challenges and from the Russians. Perhaps the shelling and counter-shelling of the last week proved too much of a provocation; perhaps he concluded that Georgia was running out of time to stop the Russians from doing in South Ossetia what they did in Abkhazia (which is nearly de fact annexed at this point). For whatever reason, the world now faces a crucial period in which the conflict could either escalate or de-escalate

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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.