My article below written for Russia Profile in the wake of the August 2008 Ossetian war:
Special to Russia Profile
The West’s Policy of Ignoring Russia’s Demands Proved Perilous
The result of the recent showdown between Russia and Georgia on South Ossetian ground is hundreds if not thousands dead, many more wounded, and a dangerous deterioration of both the security situation in the Caucasus and the Russian-Western relations. What led the West down the path of a confrontation with Russia? How did we get sent “back to the future,” toward a new Cold War?
Shortly before midnight on August 6, the Western policy that has shown little more than disdain for Russia’s interests wrought its most bitter fruit to date. Georgian troops began military operations to seize the capital of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. The next day, Georgian artillery pounded Tskhinvali indiscriminately in the kind of assault Western governments and NGOs criticized Russia for during its involvement in Chechnya. From August first to the seventh, as Georgian forces escalated violence in South Ossetia, killing three Russian peacekeepers in the process, no Western leader urged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to cease and desist. Instead, there came weak statements that both sides should stop fighting.
In this way and others the West, in particular the U.S. administrations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush, bear responsibility for the bloodshed, along with Russia, Georgia, and its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The West, in particular the United States and NATO, trained and equipped the Georgian army, and just one day before the assault, conducted joint maneuvers with Tbilisi’s troops that were being observed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It was during these maneuvers that Georgia moved forces into position and began operations in South Ossetia, starting with sniper attacks and ending with artillery barrages and an attempt to storm Tskhinvali. This was Saakashvili’s way of providing cover for his planned offensive, which if successful, would likely have expanded to Abkhazia. More importantly, he tied the United States and NATO to his effort of fulfiling his election promise of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The assumption that Russia was weak and its interests could be ignored was the most fundamental mistake. Even during post-Soviet depression and doldrums, Russia remained one of only five members of the UN Security Council positioned to veto any Western initiative and to overrule China’s veto; it remained the richest country in the world in terms of natural resources; it possessed the second largest nuclear force in the world and the largest overall military force by far in the post-Soviet space; and it lay near every region in the Eastern hemisphere of true strategic interest to the United States and to the West.
Secondly, as a result of the delusion of a crippled Russia and excessive Washington ambitions, the Clinton administration decided that it could break its promise not to expand NATO to former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, including Russia’s historical nemesis in the region, Poland, while excluding Russia. After all, what could Moscow do about it?
The West then proceeded to expand further into eastern and southeastern Europe, and under the George Bush administration, even to the post-Soviet Baltic states bordering Russia. Now NATO threatens to expand further along Russia’s border by bringing in Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow saw Saakashvili’s gambit in South Ossetia as an opportunity to turn over the playing board and block Georgia’s entry in NATO, and perhaps parlay an ensuing crisis in Russia-West relations into a general review of relations and possibly negotiations on a European security agreement that President Dmitry Medvedev proposed last month.
The better question that should have been asked at the end of the Cold War and that is still relevant today is what value do small eastern European countries add to the Atlantic community’s security compared to Russia’s potential contribution, especially if bringing the former into NATO produced an isolated, revanchist Russia that spurned democracy, rose from the ashes, and turned against the West? A land buffer? Yes, in the event of war with Moscow this would delay a Russian army. But it also makes the eastern European states the first battleground; something hardly in these states’ interest. And a Russia fully integrated into the West and NATO obviates the need for buffer zones of traditional realist geopolitics. More fundamentally, integrating Russia fully into the West, first and foremost by bringing it into NATO in some fashion with no less of a status and no later than the former eastern bloc countries, would have avoided the fault line that now divides Europe once again.
Moreover, the new military divide has created a geopolitical and ideological divide. The West’s laudable desire to expand the zone of democracy and therefore security appears from isolated Moscow as an attempt to secure NATO expansion and weaken Russia, causing Russia to counterbalance. Russia now seeks to counterbalance and divide the Atlantic community rather than to join it. Ideologically, NATO expansion and other Western moves taken without Russia’s participation discredited Russian democrats, leading to Moscow’s turn to soft authoritarianism, buttressing a sense outside the Atlantic community that soft authoritarianism has its advantages especially during periods of economic and even political transformation.
Strategically, Russia has a difficult time understanding why small changes in Russia’s military behavior and posture require an equal response on behalf of the West, but radical changes in the West’s posture, such as expanding NATO, establishing military bases in Central Asia, and others should not cause responses from Moscow–responses that cost Moscow. For example, bringing Ukraine but not Russia into NATO will require Moscow to build a new port for its Black Sea Fleet.
Russia also has great difficulty understanding why the United States can intervene militarily wherever it sees fit across the globe, but Russia cannot do so across its borders where the Georgian government has harbored international jihadists fighting Moscow, and has attacked Moscow’s historical allies in the Caucasus, the Ossetians.
In many ways, Russia’s behavior during the recent Georgian conflict and in other cases is an effort to mimic what it perceives as the West’s cynical justifications legitimizing the latter’s conduct. Moscow’s claims of genocide by Georgian forces against the Ossetians and its calls to bring those who committed it to justice imitate the West’s approach to the Yugoslav wars. Support for separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia mirrors the West’s support for Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, and Kosovar independence.
The costs of this new divide between Europe and Eurasia were made plain this past week. True, the West won new allies and Eastern Europe’s arms and other markets from Moscow. But did it improve its security or reduce the risk of bloodshed? The blood of innocent civilians caught in a power game between the West and Russia says that it did not, and continuing NATO expansion risks further bloodshed in the future.
Is the West more secure with Russia as an aggressive competitor or as an enemy than as an ally? Can the West bear the burden of having Russia as an antagonistic competitor or an enemy in addition to global jihadism and perhaps to China? NATO expansion produced a dynamic that put Russia in opposition to the West on almost every issue of importance to international security.
On issues ranging from NATO expansion to Kosovo, limits on nuclear arms and conventional arms in Europe, missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, Russia either opposes the West’s position or complicates efforts to get these issues resolved favored by the West. Russia is needed as a partner in the effort to stop the proliferation of WMD overall and in the war on jihadism. Instead of being united, Russia and the West face each other, their eyes meeting over the battered civilian populations of South Ossetia and Georgia and the beaten Georgian army.
Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons could lead to global jihadists setting off a radiological or nuclear weapon in the United States. Thus far, Russia has seen the Iran issue as a red line it cannot cross in its relations with the West. Will this be so after the West’s failure to back up a Georgia it mistakenly tricked into thinking it could count on backup in challenging Russia in South Ossetia? Conversely, will Western russophobia rage to the point where Western governments will begin to consider supporting the few nationalist or even jihadi separatists in Russia’s North Caucasus? Are we at the beginning of a new confrontational phase in the alienation of Russia and the West, or will cooler heads prevail and end NATO expansion? Recent events point to the former.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.