Vienna, August 29 – Despite the international outcry Moscow knew it would face if it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it felt that the West’s uncritical support of Georgian leader Mihkiel Saakashvili and Russian popular attitudes that the regime had cultivated left the Kremlin with no choice by to go ahead, a leading Russian foreign policy expert says.
And in choosing to expand the dimensions of the Georgian crisis by taking that step, the editor of Russia’s leading foreign policy journal said, the Kremlin calculated and continues to believe that the West, because of globalization and its own internal contradictions, will not stay united against Moscow for long (globalaffairs.ru/redcol/0/10214.html).
If the Kremlin has correctly evaluated how the West will act, then the current Russian leadership will have dramatically changed the international rules of the game in its favor. But if it is wrong, the Moscow editor says, Russia will find itself in extreme difficulty because it lacks the resources of the old Soviet Union.
In either case, Lukyanov argues, the consequences of what he describes as this most “risky game,” one that he says reflects not Russian self-confidence but rather a kind of emotional desperation on the part of its leaders, will be immense not only for the Russian Federation but also for Georgia, Russia’s other neighbors and the international community.
Because Lukyanov’s article is perhaps the most sensitive and nuanced discussion of why Moscow has acted in the way that it has and because any effort by Georgia and the West to try to resolve this conflict depends on a clear-eyed assessment of Moscow’s motivations, Lukyanov’s argument is worth following in some detail.
According to Lukyanov, the Russian-Georgian crisis has passed through a series of phases, each entailing different risk and each raising the stakes for Moscow. First, there was Moscow’s military advance into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a step that many could accept as a legitimate act of support for Moscow’s peacekeepers there.
Then, the Russian military moved into Georgia proper, a territory that no one had ever viewed as disputed, and took actions to destroy Tbilisi’s military and economic infrastructure in ways that few anywhere were prepared to describe as anything but naked aggression but again one that Moscow could in principle at least pull back from after declaring victory.
And finally, there was the Kremlin’s decision to unilaterally extend diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, an action that challenges the current rules of the game of the international community and one from which Moscow could retreat from only very publicly with a loss of face both at home and abroad.
Given those risks, Lukyanov asks, why did Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin cross this particular Rubicon at this time? The foreign policy expert suggests there were three compelling reasons.
First, he writes, “the Russian leadership like the overwhelming majority of Russians was shocked by the unanimous support the West gave to Saakashvili” -- despite actions by the Georgian leader which most Russians believed were “war crimes” that the entire “civilized world” should be condemning.
When Moscow has talked about the West’s double standards in this case, Lukyanov continues, it in fact believes that the West has been acting with “unconcealed cynicism” there. As a result, in “this emotional atmosphere” and convinced that the West had gone too far, the Kremlin decided at each stage to take “a more radical position.”
Second, the Kremlin quickly came to understand that it would not be able to secure a political blessing for what it had achieved by military means. No one was prepared to help Moscow out, and to a certain extent the Russian government was trapped by its own actions in 1999. Then it insisted on the principle of territorial integrity in the former Yugoslavia.
But in the current situation, Moscow was not prepared to maintain that principle not only because of its military gains on the ground but also because the Russian leadership was convinced that in the current environment and given the West’s attitude, it would lose its position as the sole peacekeeping nation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
And third, Lukyanov argues, there was for the Russian leadership a compelling “internal factor.” Given the emotions that the Kremlin and its media had whipped up, the Russian people would have viewed any concession by Moscow not only as a sign of weakness but as an act calling casting doubt on Putin’s insistence that Russia is back as a power to be reckoned with.
Many Russian commentators and many ordinary Russians felt after the military phase of the conflict was over that Russia was about to have its victory on the ground “snatched away from it” by diplomacy. And consequently, the Kremlin concluded that it needed to take a more radical step to show that it was not backing down, however high the stakes became.
That decision, the Moscow editor says, “is not a testament to the self-confidence” of the leadership “but does point to its willingness to take a great risk” and to play for the highest stakes, instead of pursuing all diplomatic avenues that it might have used to achieve a settlement acceptable to most sides.
Moreover, “the unwillingness of the West to permit Russia to have a strategic victory and in this way to declare its right to a sphere of influence became something beyond doubt.” And thus the conflict passed from one where discussions were possible to another where diplomacy was not an immediate option.
The Kremlin thus acted in a way to demonstrate that it could function on its own and force its neighbors to “seriously think about who is the real ‘boss’ in this region.” And if it achieved that goal, then “the question about new rules of the international game, in the elaboration of which Moscow will be an equal participant, would be a practical matter.”
Certainly Moscow expected some kind of reaction from the Western institutions. That was certainly “predictable.” But the issue for Moscow was whether NATO, the OSCE, the European Union and the Council of Europe could in fact agree to do “something concrete” and for a sustained period against Moscow if the Russians did not back down.
“The experience of previous years suggested to them a negative answer to that question: the degradation of all these organizations began long ago and has clearly progressed.” And thus in Moscow’s calculus, even if a Russian action as in Georgia caused these groups to form up for a time, any accord to punish Russia would not last for very long.
One of the big differences between the Cold War and the present, Lukyanov says, is that the Soviet threat which disciplined the European Union and NATO and allowed them to unite is no more, and the international environment is not defined by the relatively simple “confrontation of two blocks” but by multiple cross-cutting cleavages and agreements..
Russian President Medvedev has said that the Kremlin isn’t disturbed by the prospect of a Cold War, but Lukyanov argues, he “is not completely correct” in saying that. Not only has the international environment changed, making Russia more interdependent with other countries but it lacks many of the power resources the Soviet Union had.
Fortunately for Russia, the West has changed too. Globalization has affected everyone, and “the more developed a country is, the firmer is the web of the most varied dependencies in which it finds itself.” Europe needs Russian gas, and the United States is tied down by so many often conflict commitments that its freedom of action is less than many suppose.
This, Lukyanov, is what the current Russian leadership is counting on “The West has adapted only with difficulty to the realities of the 21st century” – the intermixing of politics and economics and the rise of countries in the third world. In short, the international system has become “more multidimensional” compared to “a quarter of a century ago.”
By recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the teeth of an overwhelmingly negative international reaction but in the expectation that the world community will soon find reasons to soften its approach to Russia, Lukyanov concludes, Moscow has started “an extremely risky game with very high stakes,” in which “both victory and defeat” could change everything.