Vienna, August 10 – The war that has broken out between the Republic of Georgia and the Russian Federation calls attention to two features of that region which Western governments have been loathe to recognize and which, having failed to acknowledge, have led those governments to make statements that help explain and are compounding a looming tragedy.
On the one hand, the conflict over South Ossetia shows that Russia is not the status quo power the United States and the Europeans have wanted to believe that it had somehow become and that it cannot be transformed into one simply by constantly suggesting that it is and including it in various institutions intended for countries who want to make the current system work.
Instead, Moscow in recent years thanks in large measure to the rise of Vladimir Putin has emerged as a revisionist power ready, willing and increasingly able to challenge the 1991 settlement, especially when any of the governments of the former Soviet republics such as Georgia has just done act in ways that open the door to Russian aggression.
And on the other hand, precisely because the U.S. and its allies take their wishes about Russia for facts, Washington and to a lesser extent the European capitals routinely have made statements to the non-Russian governments that suggest the West will back them up in any dust up with the Russians.
Sometimes that has taken the form of the reiteration of the notion that the U.S. supports “the territorial integrity” of this or that country, a statement with meaning only if someone is challenging that but one that leads the non-Russian governments to conclude that the West will back them if they seek to defend that principle, something the West will not do beyond rhetoric.
And sometimes, the American notion that Washington can include all or almost all of the post-Soviet states in NATO if it so chooses and that it can actively promote “color” revolutions in one place or another again sends a message different than intended: it suggests that the U.S. can and will intervene decisively to support its friends, something it will not do against Moscow.
In short, the yawning gap between the rhetorical excesses of the West regarding Russia as a status quo power and the non-Russian countries as the West’s “strategic partners” and what the West is actually prepared to do in the event of a crunch between these countries and Russia is creating an ever-widening series of disasters.
In the first instance, it is encouraging non-Russian leaders like Georgia’s Mihkiel Saakashvili to adopt a more forward leaning approach than any country in the West will support, thus setting the stage for a retreat that will leave Georgia not only worse off than it was before in terms of control over its own destiny but also disillusioned with the West as such.
Then, that disillusionment is already spreading to other countries in the region who can see that the gap between the West’s rhetoric and the reality means they have to back down even further in the face of Russian pressure than would otherwise be the case, thus further limiting the opportunities of these nations for a better future.
And finally – and this is a danger that cannot be ruled out – such a disorderly recession of Western and especially American power and influence in the region means that the Russians, never all that sophisticated in gauging just where the lines are, may finally cross a red line and provoke an explosion in East-West relations that could rapidly get out of hand.
No one – and I mean no one – would have been happier than the author of these lines if American and Western actions had matched American and Western rhetoric in support of the non-Russian nations who escaped the evil empire 17 years ago, but again no one can be less happy than I that the emerging gap is leading to a disaster for both these nations and the West.
These reflections are prompted not only by a close following the events of the last week in the Caucasus but also by two wise declarations by people who know far better than the West does just how dangerous the situation in Georgia is not only for the people of that region but also for the West and the future of Russia.
The first of these documents is a joint declaration issued by the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland concerning the Georgian events. Having condemned Russian actions in Georgia, the four ask two pointed questions that should be on the minds of all people of good will everywhere:
First, they ask, “can the current Russian authorities be called adequate strategic partners of the EU; and second “can the family of European democratic countries pursue a mutually beneficial dialogue with a country that uses heavy military armor against an independent country” (www.president.ee/en/duties/press_releases.php?gid=116987).
Noting that the Georgian events represent “a litmus test for the credibility of the EU and NATO to solve the conflict and to prove for all EU and NATO members, aspirant countries and democratic partners that it is worth being members and partners of these organizations,” the four presidents invite other world leaders to join them in this declaration.
The second of these documents is an appeal by Sergei Kovalyev and other leading Russian human rights activists to condemn what Russia is doing in Georgia, to exclude Moscow from the G-8 because of its actions, and to have the UN, OSCE, and PACE impose sanctions against the Russian government (grani.ru/Politics/World/Europe/Georgia/m.139826.html).
These two documents issued by two brave groups of people who understand first hand just what the Russian state is capable of and how Moscow will inevitably seek to exploit Western weakness and especially Western mistakes merit not only the greatest possible respect but the closest possible attention in Western capitals.
It is, of course, very late for this in the Georgian crisis, but it is not too soon to start thinking carefully about bringing words and actions into line so that the tragedy now visiting the people of the Republic of Georgia will not soon extend to other nations in the region and to the broader world as well.