An Aggressive Russia

Much has been written and said the last few days regarding the Georgian crisis from an American perspective, including on this site. Political junkies are rapturous over this fresh event. Veterans of the Cold War have reached back into themselves beyond nostalgia, and have burst forth with condemnations, strangely reassured that world tensions have suddenly returned to a realm they know and understand, a place where America was unequivocal in its righteousness. The consensus from these groups, along with so many others, is that we are watching Russia once again act the part of shameless, ruthless aggressor, punishing Georgia beyond cause, possibly beyond any reasoning beyond that of bold, naked intimidation. From where we sit, here in the United States, the crisis in Georgia exists in black and white, with little nuance. Whereas so much damage has been wrought by such uncomplicated reasoning, here is a situation where the starkness of our perceptions and the starkness of reality are not that far apart.

This once frozen conflict had in fact been simmering for some time. Tensions between the Georgians on one side, and the South Ossetians, Abkhazians, and Russians on the other, never abated despite the lack of all-out warfare. Indeed, one could say that Georgia, its breakaway republics, and southern Russia itself, encompassing Chechnya, have never been at peace since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Abkhazians and South Ossetians exist in a nationalistic morass, claiming their own identities separate from Georgia, while being, in so many cases, Russian citizens. Their own identity, or their Russian identity, has been wrapped up in the ambitions of two truly sovereign nations in Georgia and Russia. Whatever connection Russia maintains with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while real, is also based on Russia’s desire to maintain deterministic influence, if not outright control, over its neighbors. Georgia, like most states facing similar situations throughout history, is struggling to maintain territorial integrity. As long as it can prevent its breakaway republics from attaining true independence, it will. As long as those republics cannot force independence, they won’t. Until last Friday, Russia had been the stabilizing factor maintaining the status quo, but it is obvious that they were, instead, waiting for an opportunity to assert their authority in the region, finally contesting the independence of a republic it lost bloodlessly almost two decades before.

If the South Ossetians have a claim to independence, it has been supplanted by Russian designs. The same goes for the Abkhazians. They are pawns in a larger international game, one in which Russia saw its power almost disappear in the 1990s, as NATO, a coalition representing avowed enemies, celebrated its Cold War victory by creeping to Russia’s borders. With every promise from the United States and the west that Russia’s concerns would be respected regarding the new world order, Russia watched many of those concerns ignored, sometimes with disdain. Even after Russia regained its footing due to its newfound energy economy, it found its concerns ignored again, as the west recognized the sovereignty of Kosovo, a breakaway republic of Serbia, a Russian ally. The rhetoric from Moscow was angry. Having recently beat back Georgia’s attempts to join NATO, an instance where Russian concerns were not ignored, Russia threatened to recognize Georgia’s breakaway republics as independent states in a tit-for-tat contest with the west. And while Russia did not do so, it was yet another signal that the tensions with Georgia were always on the surface in the Kremlin.

Russia has had strained relations with other former republics, notably the Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic states, but Georgia has held a special place. Even before last Friday, Russia had a military presence, as peacekeepers, inside Georgia’s borders. Sporadic fighting has caused casualties between the two ever since the internal conflicts over South Ossetia and Abkhazia were frozen last decade. Russia has accused Georgia of harboring Chechnyan terrorists, and Georgia has accused Russia of aiding its internal enemies. Also, Georgia is far enough away from the center of European gravity that Russia has more options in dealing with what it sees as an upstart nation. Namely, Russian tanks and paratroopers in Gori, while alarming, does not carry the palpable weight as does an identical scenario in Kiev. Georgia is a place that, unfortunately for the Georgians, the west will let fall under the thumb of the Russians with not much more of a forceful response than bluster and light sanctions. However, even with the declining influence of the United States, Russia could not come down on the near-abroad it shares with Europe, as it can on the one it shares with Asia. To do so would be overreach, something Russia has not been prone to do in this young century.

Russia seems to believe that the independence of former Soviet republics is contingent on approval from Moscow. Even while it watched its republics melt away in nationalistic and democratic fervor in the early 1990s, powerless to prevent such a massive revolution in world affairs, it lay in wait for the time when once again it would implement the near-abroad strategy that has been a hallmark of Russian foreign relations for centuries. The crime of Georgia was its embrace of western freedoms, which Russia does not have; democratic government, which Russia only pretends to have; and its overtures to a west which Russia will never regard without suspicion. Just as Russia only allows its own people so much latitude, those nations that it believes it has propriety over are regarded in the same fashion. Georgia is not Russia, but that does not matter. As a near-abroad nation, especially one in a strategically weak position, Georgia is expected to show the proper amount of deference, isolation, and repression. Straying from that path, and, incredibly, trying to become a bastion of European values, led to Russia’s invasion.

The hostilities are nearing an end, even as some fighting continues after an official ceasefire. The Russian military has tactical supremacy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, controls the city of Gori in Georgia proper, yet stopped short of a ground assault on Tbilisi or an attempt to annihilate the government and military of Georgia. It is in a position to pursue such policies at any time. The coming negotiations with (or dictates to) the administration of Mikheil Saakashvili will come from a position of unassailable strength. The people of Georgia participated in a massive rally in support of their government yesterday, but that will not dampen the fact that Russia holds the Sword of Damocles over the Georgian government. Wisely, Russia has chosen to defer occupation among a hostile populace, but that will not stop them from further destabilizing actions should they find the need for a more cooperative strongman or puppet to lead the regime. Georgia, for the time being, exists at the benevolence of its powerful neighbor.

The implications for the rest of the world, at this point, are not clear. The Russian decision to escalate, then limit the conflict, points to the possibility that the operation achieved its goals. Russia destabilized Georgia, but further action could have forced a stronger response from the west. Also, other near-abroad nations watching the situation closely now see the Georgian government coming through Russian discipline intact. Had the Georgian government been annihilated, the threat to their own existences would have increased in accordance, possibly driving those nations further into western arms.

The action in Georgia, while a product of unique circumstances, is also a message that Russia demands to be respected. Russia is once again a powerful nation. It represents its own sphere of influence, equal to that of the west, and has concrete limits to its patience. It is not averse to unilateral action, and the success of such action justifies the action in a spiral of logic that only leaves Moscow in greater control of its affairs. Russia’s recent strength in foreign affairs has increasingly rested on its ability to intimidate its competitors into submission. Now the possibility of military action has been added to its options.

Luckily for much of Europe, the action in Georgia came during the summer. Had this occurred during winter, Russia may have responded to the criticism thrown its way by cutting off oil and natural gas transfers to the west, damaging the world economy and displaying to greater effect its rediscovered might.

It is oil and natural gas that are the root of Russia’s resurgence. Without that, and the west’s addiction, Russia would still be struggling to establish a post-Soviet identity. With the resources it has, Russia has leverage, making containment a non-starter, and the rest of the world has yet to figure out how to meet the new international reality Russia thrust onto the stage five days ago.