Georgia breakdown of vision the west had for a new europe.docx
Georgia: Breakdown of Vision the West Had
for a New Europe
Robert E. Hunter
This commentary appeared in European Affairs on August 28, 2008.
Since the Russian Federation sent tanks, troops, and planes slicing into Georgia, commentators
have reached for a variety of historic parallels. 1968 and the Soviet Union snuffs out Prague
Spring. 1939 and the Nazis thrust into Poland. 1938 and the Czechoslovaks are sacrificed to
the unwillingness of democracies to confront evil. None of these supposed parallels catches
the current situation. A better – but still imperfect – parallel is 1914, when an assassination in a
remote corner of the world set larger and destructive events in motion. The trigger-event with
outsize results this time was Georgia’s attempt with military force to reoccupy South Ossetia.
Of course, this is not 1914. Great Powers are not treaty-linked so that one event can start a whole
chain of disasters. There is no prospect of a wider war. After a first wave of strong language on
both sides, tempers have begun (slowly) to cool, even though the Russians are falling short of
their pledge to withdraw from Georgia and have now recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as
independent. But there is still something in the parallel: the world of Europe and of its powers
and other countries will not be the same. The implications will be lasting; the requirement for
wise and temperate leadership on all sides is critical to contain the consequences of what has
As always, the post-mortems offer clear insights that could and should have been there in
advance. At the local level, tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been slowly
approaching the boiling point, but never so close as to energize the Western powers or the United
Nations to do something serious about them. At the same time, the Georgian president, Mikheil
Saakashvili, had repeatedly stated his intention to reintegrate the two semi-breakaway provinces
back into Georgia – as he had done successfully in May 2004 with Ajara, the Black Sea enclave
on the Turkish border. And Russia had warned about what could happen if he tried.
At a larger level, many leaders and commentators in NATO countries, notably the United States,
had pressed for admission of more countries to the alliance, notably Georgia and the other nearterm contender bordering Russia, Ukraine. That followed logic of helping fledgling democracies,
but it ignored a basic characteristic of NATO membership that was clearly missing for both these
candidates: NATO is first and foremost about its guarantee that “an armed attack against one or
more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” If current allies are not prepared
to give such a pledge, without reservation, then offers of membership must not be made and
great care must be taken not to give a false impression. And NATO – again led by the United
States – also forgot the basic principle of the Alliance’s post-cold war policies that efforts to
increase any one nation’s security must also at least consider the potential impact on the security,
real or perceived, of other nations.
All this happened, in fact, at the NATO summit in Bucharest last April. President George W.
Bush was pressing to see Ukraine and Georgia advanced along the path to NATO membership
through the development of a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Many other allies, notably
Germany and France but backed by most of the others, resisted the move and had made their
objections clear. Much commentary at the time focused on these countries’ concerns about
Russia and some U.S. critics even hinted at the dark word from the 1930s: appeasement. Much
less commentary noted the inherent problem of most allies’ unwillingness to provide security
guarantees even at some point in the future.
At Bucharest, NATO reached what was represented as a compromise. MAP was to be postponed
until later consideration in December 2008. In its place, the allies “agreed today that these
countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.” Meant to be a throwaway
line, a sop and a stopgap, that was in fact a profound statement, it was in effect the moment at
which the allies declared that they were prepared to give their solemn security guarantees to
these two countries – the essence of NATO membership. Most of the allies did not see it this
way or at least believed that they would be able to push off any practical consequences of what
they had done into the indefinite future.
But two people clearly took NATO at its word: one was Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, for
whom – in the case of Georgia – this was NATO’s embracing a country that was by no stretch
of the imagination important to the West in terms of preventing a future conflict in Europe.
Its situation did not involve any of the uncertainties about the strategic status of countries
in Europe’s heartland, uncertainties that had been proximate causes of the First and Second
World Wars. From Putin’s perspective, this was a provocation, at least politically, an action of
“disrespect” for Russia and its interests. And, it transpires, he was prepared to show the allies
“who was boss” in the South Caucasus.
The other person who apparently took NATO at its word was Georgia’s president. Mikheil
Saakashvili, who then acted as though he had license to act as he saw fit in South Ossetia,
apparently in the belief that, faced with a fait accompli, the NATO allies would back him up.
Tragically, he was proved wrong. In an effort at its Bucharest summit to push off a difficult
issue and to avoid embarrassing the US president, NATO had helped set the scene for a gross
miscalculation on the Georgian president’s part. The Russians were prepared for an excuse to
act. Saakashvili recklessly give it to them.
At a larger level still, the Georgia crisis was produced by the failure of the NATO powers – led
by the United States – to continue building on the promise contained in the former President
George H.W. Bush’s historic vision of a “Europe whole and free and at peace.” For NATO, four
objectives were key: to keep the US engaged as a European power; to make sure there would be
no backsliding – however remote – from the grand reconciliation among the combatants engaged
in the West European battlegrounds of World War I and II; to take Central Europe permanently
off the diplomatic and strategic chessboard; and to engage Russia rather than treat it like a
defeated power to be isolated, spurned or punished.
This agenda was followed rather well in the 1990s. Where the allies fell short was – in this
author’s view – in the inadequacy of their efforts to engage Russia deeply in the global economy,
in order to bind it to the West. Admitting it to the Group of Eight (G-8) “talk shop” was
symbolically useful, but Russia is still being kept in the waiting room for membership in the
World Trade Organization (WTO). Admitting Russia should have been done many years ago as
a matter of grand strategy regardless of whether the Russians had met the technical membership
Now, after a decade witnessing the rise of the Russian petro-economy, Kremlin leaders are
less convinced of Russia’s need to draw upon economic relationships with the outside world
– even though Russia, in reality, remains largely a rentier state, with all of the limitations that
term implies. At the same time, the rise of Vladimir Putin and his ilk led to an effort to reimpose
Moscow’s control over all of Russia, reduce the relative autonomy of different regions, gather
the reins of power in his own hands to the degree possible, keep democratic developments
under control and reduce the impact of outsiders on Russia’s development. An often-cited
example of this last-named trend was the every-tighter restrictions placed on non-governmental
organizations in Russia.
So, too, Putin has sought to reassert Russia’s role as a significant power, at least on the Russian
periphery. How this is characterized depends on perspective: varying from “demanding respect
for Russia’s legitimate interests and right of engagement in major regional developments” to
“reassertion of its natural sphere of influence” to “starting the process of recreating the classic
Russian empire.” The last-named is certainly reminiscent of what happened after the Treaty of
Brest-Litovsk stripped Ukraine from the Soviet Union in 1918: When the treaty was annulled
after the war, it took Moscow only four years to re-absorb Ukraine into the Soviet empire.
Whichever interpretation best explains Russia’s role in the deterioration of relations, the West
– particularly the United States – played its part. NATO agreed to create military bases, limited
to be sure, in new allies Bulgaria and Romania, designed to facilitate access to areas of incipient
turmoil farther east, now including Afghanistan. And the United States pressed for sites in
Poland and the Czech Republic at which to base elements of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM)
system designed to counter potential threats from Iran and, depending on the azimuth of an
attack, from North Korea. None of these steps can conceivably be seen as posing any kind of
military threat to Russia and Moscow knows it – although it has chosen to represent the contrary
and also tried to use the ABM issue to split the allies by recalling the (false) parallel of Euromissile deployments in the 1980s that led to mass demonstrations in many West European cities.
This Russian tactic includes threats to reply in some fashion with military force if the ABMs
are deployed at some point many years from now. At the same time, however, these Western
military developments do seem to Russia as encroachment by NATO – more particularly, by the
US – on territories increasingly close to its borders. Moscow has depicted them both as taking
advantage of Russia when it had no capacity to resist – precisely the opposite of the dictum
propounded by President George H.W. Bush – and as coming perilously close to violating the
spirit if not the letter of a commitment in the1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act that the alliance,
as it took in new members, would engage in no “additional permanent stationing of substantial
On the Western side, two events this year stoked the crisis of August, along with the troop
build-up on the Russian side. Even before the Bucharest summit, the West blessed Kosovo’s
independence in February. Much has been made in the US and elsewhere in the West that
this was the “least worst” alternative for Kosovo and that it set no precedents. The Russians
have disagreed, seeing in it not just a further taking advantage of their weakened state but as
a valid parallel to both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The differences are not so striking as to
demonstrate that the Russians are entirely wrong. At the same time, the NATO-Russia Council,
created to give Russia a special though limited voice at NATO Headquarters, had largely become
an empty vessel, more because the Russians reduced their engagement than because of any
NATO reluctance to continue some cooperation.
Overall, what has happened in recent years has been an unfortunate drifting from the original
conception of NATO enlargement. It was conceived in the mid-1990s as part of an effort to
move beyond the old power politics and spheres of influence in Europe, to a political and
security system that could, over time, draw on the same developments in politics, economics,
and social organization that had led the countries of Western Europe to abolish war as an
instrument of their relations with one another – one of history’s small handful of truly positive
achievements. But as time went on, there was too much nibbling at the edges of this concept, as
noted above. At the same time, the West did not do enough to ensure that Russia was not pushed
aside in the process; nor did it do enough to ensure that geopolitics would not ride on the back
of valid and worthy efforts and thus undermine the vision of a lasting European security based
on cooperation and inclusion rather than confrontation (however mild) and exclusion (however
partial). For its own part, Russia was too slow – or too incapable – of understanding that moving
beyond the world of geopolitics and the calculus of the zero-sum game would have significant
benefits for Russia and both its security and its economic advance. To a considerable extent,
therefore, the Russians under Vladimir Putin isolated themselves.
The crisis over Georgia has also sharpened some fault lines in the Western alliance. It was
notable that the emergency meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on August 19th
produced so little in terms of common action or even firm language: “We have determined
that we cannot continue with business as usual [with Russia].” Along with agreement to set
up a NATO-Georgia Commission, this achieved at least some measure of agreement. It also
avoided the spectacle of an alliance ready to be split apart by Russian actions, possibly therefore
becoming vulnerable to more bad behavior by Moscow. But it was clear that not all the allies
saw developments the same way – and in the word “allies” can also be seen differences on the
part of various members of the European Union.
In general, differences fall along the line that had been defined by former US Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in an offhand comment, as “old” versus “new” Europe. For countries
that had once been under the yoke of the Soviet Union and communism, Georgia is a fearful
harbinger of things to come. For countries with none of that experience, dependence on Russian
for natural gas looms larger; or, where that is not a factor, there is concern lest events in a distant
part of the world, where the Georgian president had been part of the problem, will undercut
longer-term efforts to forge some kind of positive, mutually-beneficial relationship with Russia.
For its part, the United States falls more into the category of “new Europe,” certainly in terms
of rhetoric – which, strikingly, has emanated from Democrats and Republicans in almost equal
Today, therefore, the Georgia crisis needs to be seen not just in terms of what has happened
in the Caucasus or even in terms of what now transpires there. And what needs to be done is
more or less obvious, at least in terms of Russian troop withdrawals, the insertion of outside
peacekeepers (EU or OSCE), and assertion of the sanctity of Georgia’s frontiers as a principle
of sovereignty and pending the outcome of diplomacy, including about the future status of
South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Also, there needs to be a shoring-up of support for Georgia’s
democratic development – as far from completion as it clearly is. In addition, there are obvious
needs for large-scale humanitarian relief and for major economic reconstruction and investment,
to demonstrate that the West – including the European Union – sees Georgia as a country
with a proper and valid vocation to be part of Euro-Atlantic institutions. This needs to include
assuring that Georgia will retain control of its major East-West highway and of the crossGeorgia pipelines that extend from Baku to Ceyhan (in Turkey) and Baku to Georgia’s port at
Supsa. This economic engagement should also be offered to Abkhazia and South Ossetia – on
the proviso that, whatever diplomacy’s outcome, they must remain formally independent of the
What the West should not do is pour massive military aid into Georgia, beyond what is required
to make good losses and to symbolize the same kinds of engagement that are generally provided
to Partnership for Peace countries. To go beyond that level would risk creating the illusion that
Georgia could defend itself or sending a message that allies see the military dimensions of the
continuing crisis as more important than the diplomatic dimensions that now must emerge.
At the same time, the prospect of Georgia’s (and Ukraine’s) someday joining Euro-Atlantic
institutions as full members, including the EU and NATO, needs to be held open. Indeed,
while what NATO did at its Bucharest summit helped to create the crisis, now abandoning
the possibility of NATO membership for Georgia – in theory as well as for the time being in
practice – would send the wrong signal to Moscow about its ability to interfere in NATO’s
sovereign decision-making. Whatever the cause, the Russians went much too far; in particular,
they reminded the world of their inglorious past, as Russia and as the Soviet Union, when it
comes to the treatment of near neighbors, especially weak near neighbors; and they at least have
to understand that others cannot be entirely “buffaloed.” There is also Ukraine to think about, as
well as watchful Central European peoples worried whether NATO will now overbalance in the
The extent of fears on the part of other “new” members of NATO can be seen in Poland’s
immediate dropping of conditions it had been imposing – mostly financial compensation –
on the deployment of US anti-ballistic missiles on its territory. Poland also asked for bilateral
US guarantees to supplement those of NATO’s Article 5, arguing that NATO itself could not
be relied upon to provide support in a (possible) hour of need. The US has rightly resisted
this request, since to accommodate any one anxious ally in this way would cheapen NATO’s
guarantees everywhere and set off a clamor for similar bilateral commitments and very likely
move everyone in the direction of a new cold war.
The West certainly needs to step up the integration of all the societies of Central Europe and the
Caucasus into the global economy and to buttress their domestic development.
This is not all that needs to be done. Indeed, it is now clear that the issue of Russia, where it
fits within the broader scheme of things, and what to do about it has risen to become one of the
top priorities for the next US administration, for the NATO alliance, and also for the European
Union. Vladimir Putin has “sent a message” that the West must take more notice of Russia, and
the point has been taken. But that does not mean that the West – along with its various national
and institutional components – needs to accommodate Russia where its demands are excessive
by any measure or where what it wants comes at the expense of the rights of others, in this case
Georgia and, later on, countries like Ukraine. With respect to Georgia, itself, it must be “off
limits” for any Russian efforts to depose its sitting president – however difficult for the West and
less-than-democratic he has proved to be; similarly unacceptable must be any Russian efforts to
“hold hostage” key Georgian economic assets, including the port at Poti.
Nor should the West be cowed into believing that somehow Russia has returned to the fray as a
true great power, much less a superpower. Besides its oil and gas, it continues to have a secondrate economy. Its rate of economic innovation still falls behind almost all Western societies.
Its military is still very much second-rate and not heading toward first-rate status very fast. Its
population is falling at a faster rate than any other country in the developed world. And it is
crowded along its Eastern frontier by “the new kid on the block,” China. Indeed, it was ironic
that, while Russia was working to show its mettle in a tiny part of the world and finding it a bit
rough going, China was showing off at the Olympics, as a society that creates more economic
advance in a week than Russia could hope to achieve in a year or much, much longer. It is also
a China with a huge and vigorous population that abuts the wide open spaces of Eastern Siberia,
which are being steadily depopulated of Russians.
In short, this is not the early 1920s, when Lenin could shut the Soviet Union off from the outside
world in pursuit of “Socialism in one country;” nor is it the late 1940s, when Stalin could spurn
involvement for his fledging empire in the Marshall Plan in order to rebuild his shattered country
and East European satellites on the basis of autarky and to try challenging the West in military
power and industrial production – and in the end fail in one of history’s greatest collapses of a
country or empire. Russia, including a Russia structured according to the desires of Vladimir
Putin, needs the outside world; indeed, as much as anything, the lack of that connection is why
the Soviet Union collapsed. And following what Russia has done in and to Georgia, countries
and institutions in the West, however much they would like to have positive relations with
Moscow, will find it politically hard to do so, at least anytime soon. For the next US president, in
particular, that time could be a while in coming.
At the same time, the West, including the United States, NATO, and the European Union, cannot
easily dismiss Russia as a potential partner. There is, of course, rising dependence on exports of
Russian hydrocarbons: that has created dependencies that Moscow can exploit, but it has already
been a spur to finding alternatives, even though that could take years. There are also issues of
strategic and other forms of arms control, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction
(especially nuclear weapons), countering terrorism, prosecuting the conflict in Afghanistan
(where trans-shipment of supplies through Russian territory is helpful to NATO), the future
of the Middle East, and longer-range issues of the environment and, yes, climate change.
Thus Russia is not the lone demandeur; there are some interests and objectives on each side in
relations with the other. (One near-term casualty will almost certainly be any hope for continued
Russian cooperation over Iran – a development that could prove a blessing in disguise for those
who want the US to find a strategy for dealing with Iran that is not based solely on containment).
In the period just ahead, it will be important that the various nations and institutions of the West
begin to craft a common set of policies toward Russia, even if getting the politics right will take
some time – a process that can be hastened by a reduction in rhetoric and an increase in analysis.
Under no circumstances, in the absence of future Russian behavior that makes such a course
inescapable, should there be talk or preparation for a new cold war. The facts don’t justify it;
only a bad psychological state or inability to let go of old habits of mind can take us there.
At the same time, the Western allies, flanked by the European Union, need to return to the basic
premises of transformation they embraced following the cold war: engagement and not isolation;
inclusion not exclusion; understanding of the legitimate political, economic, and security
requirements of all countries in the region – without acceding to anyone’s purely nationalist
definition of the adjective “legitimate;” and positive reciprocity to positive actions by Russia.
When the time is right, the US, NATO, and the EU should each select a few areas of potential
cooperation with Russia and test whether Moscow is prepared to follow suit.
In the final analysis, the West and its institutions need to concentrate on not making matters
worse, through some feeling about the need to “punish” Russia or cut off potential avenues of
future cooperation. The Western allies need to stick to their principles, notably the fostering of
democratic development in European and other states, and keep the door open to new entrants to
Euro-Atlantic institutions, including a path, in ways that can be appropriate, for Russia to enter
these institutions. They need to make clear that what Russia now does regarding Georgia and
also Ukraine will set patterns of possibilities – or lack of possibilities – for a long time to come.
Above all, the West and its institutions need to promote and sustain their own cohesion. If they
do these things, a waiting game may lead Russia in the right direction: to chose, finally, to try
living in the 21st century, with all the opportunities the future can offer, or to look back to the
19th century and suffer the consequences of decreasing relevance. Russia now has much to prove
– in its own self-interest and that of its potential partners in the outside world. It also has a lot to
gain by making the right historic choices.
By Robert E. Hunter, senior advisor at the RAND Corporation. Former U.S. ambassador to
NATO (1993-98). In 2002-06, he conducted a project in Georgia for the U.S. Department of
This article will appear in the Volume 9 Number 3 - Fall 2008 issue of European Affairs, the
public policy journal of The European Institute.