One week from the day of the first move in the latest (but probably not last) clash in the Caucasus, not one but two major deals were signed. One of them was a cease-fire agreement, signed by Georgian President Mikheil Saaksashvili and brokered by Nicholas Sarkozy (his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev signed the agreement on Saturday), the other was the deal signed by Poland and the U.S. which allows for the deployment of American interceptor missiles in Polish soil as a component of the long-debated US “Missile Shield”.
Both agreements are tentative and don’t necessarily mean the end of the struggle, be it the struggle over the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia or the one over the missiles. Actually, the success of one could mean the failure of the other. Poland’s agreement to house American missiles, after a great deal of stress within Poland and fierce debates as to the pro’s and con’s of doing so, was a product of the fear of renewed Russian assertiveness and increased American pressure. An easing of tensions following the success of the cease-fire could lead to less support for a move that was made under a (false?) sense of urgency. This holds especially if the Poles realize that Saakashvili’s test of Russian temper was a major cause of Georgia’s ill-fate.
Although both sides are guilty of provocative and overeager behavior, it’s increasingly clear that Georgia made the first definitive move. The West has been testing Russia’s patience for quite a while. Since 1991, one could say, but a glance at recent events should suffice. NATO’s encroachment of Russia, the American recognition of an independent Kosovo (which Putin WARNED IN ADVANCE could lead to similar claims regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia), and, last but definitely not least, the absurd missile-shield plan defended in casual and patronizing tone by the US.
As Russians were quick to note, the hurry with which the US-Poland agreement was signed – not to mention Ukraine’s pledge to participate in the missile defense system and increased restrictions on activities in the Russian naval base of Sevastopol – betrays the true intentions behind the missile-shield and just who the threat is perceived to be (“protection against Iran, eh George?”). And although Russia has nothing to fear from this “shield” (see why) – or maybe precisely because it’s such a gratuitous move – it will feel compelled to push back in other spots of the world that are of Western concern. It is in this sense that insistence on the fantastic idea of a missile-shield could have sealed Georgia’s fate: Russia may feel all the less willing to let this one slide.
The realization that Western self-righteous, self-serving, patronizing and passive-aggressive behavior towards Russia for the past decade or so is one of the major drivers of Russian assertiveness (coupled with what Thomas Friedman called the First Law of Petropolitics) has not been enough to convince some commentators to rethink their stance. Quite to the contrary, it has led them to dig up the ghost of appeasement. Yes, though it should be quite obvious that 21st century Russia is not Nazi Germany and Putin is not Hitler, the latter’s specter looms large and the analogy gets thrown around. The fact that Secretary of State Rice compared Russia’s invasion of Georgia to Brezhnev’s 1968 and not to Hitler’s 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia is thus actually a small relief.
This was the kind of thinking that provided the rationale for a “vigilant containment” of the USSR since the aftermath of the WWII. The predominance in the United States of the belief that a sustained strategy of containment “won” the Cold War lends further credence to this idea even today. But Putin’s Russia is not Soviet Union either.
All these flawed analogies obscure what should be the real lessons drawn from the history of the Cold War, namely that paranoid, frantic “containment” of even a moderately conservative, defense-minded power is counterproductive and acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Soviets were not without their share of the blame for the Cold War, and the bipolar distribution of capabilities made SOME tension and counterpoising inevitable; but Kennan-style containment of the “red threat” just made it harder to deal with the complex realities of international politics.
In the Cold War, the “West against the rest” formula made it impossible for the US to work the cleavages in the “communist bloc” fully to its advantages, namely the Sino-Soviet split from the 60’s onward. Today, the fact that Russia and China both failed to democratize after the fall of communism and thus remain the main players of what Robert Kagan and others have recently characterized as the other extreme of a new divide, between democratic and authoritarian governments, pushes analogical new-cold-war thinking a step further. Recasting the old Cold War formula in these new terms risks, therefore, any prospect of a sensible strategy towards China (and Iran, for that matter), as well as towards Russia.
There is some truth to this reading, though. As Kagan powerfully argues, it is in the fault-lines between democracy and authoritarianism that conflict is more likely to occur these days (see his The Return of History and the End of Dreams, where he stops inches short of predicting the present war). This happens because democracies are increasingly pushy and downright abusive when it comes to “good governance”, “responsibility”, and “democratization”; and authoritarians, jealous of their power positions and sovereign rights, and are not afraid to play the power game to keep intruders at bay. It’s not a necessary feature of power politics, but a sad reality with nasty consequences.
And like in the Cold War, it’s the small players that are the most enthusiastic about this “ideological” struggle, because it blinds statesmen to the necessities of power politics. Saakashvili was quick to play the democracy card, the Western media followed suit, and so did American leaders, though not to the extent that Saakashvili hoped. He was counting, fantastically, on Western intervention on his behalf. Putin decried the ridiculous notion that government-type politics should trump power politics and, luckily, cooler heads prevailed. Crude power considerations no doubt played a major part in preventing the West from taking a much tougher stance against Russia, but the picture is clear: Russia comes out of the war as the bad guy, and some major developments in Russia’s integration into the “international society” (e.g. NATO-Russia cooperation, Russian candidacy to the WTO) will suffer.
But the big losers here are the US and Europe. Europeans do not want to pick a fight with Russia right now. The Euro-zone is going through some difficult economic times and the European Union is still not a cohesive actor in foreign and defense affairs, and Russia has been very successful in driving wedges between European countries. Tension with Russia could put overwhelming stress on both economic and political integration in Europe.
The US have bigger fish to fry in the Far East, but instead of devising a comprehensive strategy to deal with a rising China – something that has been a top political priority in Russia –, let alone a strategy that takes advantage of the potential divergences between Russia and China (such as the Chinese Diaspora in Siberia or disputes over political influence in Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East), American politicians keep pushing both countries together.
This war was not the political blunder of the decade, but it was pretty close. Thousands of Ossetians lost their homes, Georgia is probably going to lose both provinces and any chance of joining NATO anytime soon, and Saakashvili could lose his job. Russia lost any remaining sympathy from the West and could lose a lot of money in trade and investment. Though Poland stands to lose a lot more in case of a nuclear exchange, the chances of this happening (or of Poland surviving an all-out nuclear war even if it didn’t accept American missiles) should not be overestimated. The US and Europe are losing in the long term as well as the short term, as was argued above. Even China lost, by having its thunder stolen. To the extent that this war is turned into an omen of the “dawn of a New Cold War” we’re all losers.