In March 2010 I interviewed the late Ronald Asmus about his last book published in 2010, A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the future of the West. The book discusses the circumstances that lead to the 2008 South Ossetia War which pitted Georgia against Russia, and its implications for European security.
Which was the message and aim that Russia intended to send to NATO and to the West more generally using as leverage the war with Georgia from August 2008?
Let me perhaps start by telling your readers why I wrote this book. I did so for two reasons. The first was that I felt that the true story about why this war happened needed to be told. I spent a lot of time in Georgia in the years preceding the war, came to know many of the leaders and how they thought; visited the conflict zones; and I felt the reality as I had seen and experienced was not being accurately reflected in the narrative about the war that set in after it was over.
The second reason was that, I felt people wanted to forget this war too quickly as opposed to learning from our mistakes. The Russo-Georgia war was a little war but one that raised big questions. Its root cause was not the future status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia although. Russo-Georgian relations were troubled and these conflicts certainly real. But the war’s root cause was Georgia’s desire to go West and Russia determination to stop it and keep it in a Russian sphere of influence. Georgia was not only a physical target but also a political one in order to deter or contain any future expansion of Western institutions to Russia’s borders.
Many diplomats would prefer to forget or sweep the Russo-Georgia war under the rug. But if one does not learn the right lessons from history, we are likely to make the same mistakes. None of the underlying tensions are resolved. There is no stable solution in sight for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow has not abandoned the goal of breaking Georgia’s desire to go West. Instability and separatism are growing in the northern Caucasus is making the broader region more volatile. Will it lead Russia to be more cautious or assertive toward the southern Caucasus? I don’t know. But I do worry that this region is on a course that can result in more and not less stability.
More broadly this war has shown clearly that we no longer have any agreement with Russia in the rules of the game when it comes to European security. The Charters of Paris and Istanbul – documents we consider to be key – have become dead letters in Moscow’s eyes. Perhaps the biggest difference today between the West and Russia is not the issues most often in the news –Iran or Afghanistan. It is the contested neighborhood – the future of those countries between the eastern borders of NATO and the EU and Russia. While we still talk the talk of cooperative security in Europe, renewed geopolitical competion has already started.
To what extent the invasion of Georgia revealed the anti status-quo character of Russia ? And to what extent was this aggression a game changer for the European Security, for the rules of the game codified in 1990s as the foundation of the European security architecture? Was this invasion a rebellion against the security order of the 1990s?
I believe this war was not only directed against Georgia but the West more generally. One of its targets was to stop any further NATO enlargement eastward. It was the culmination of Russian resentment and estrangement from the West and a more aggressive trend in Moscow’s policy. It is part of a bigger shift that has taken place in Russian thinking over the last decade, but especially after the Orange and Rose Revolutions. Russia today openly lays claim to a sphere of privileged interested on its borderlands –in direct contradiction to commitments made under the Helsinki process. It has embraced policies and a military doctrine labeling NATO a threat and justifying the right to intervene in these countries. While packaged in diplo-speak, President Medvedev’s new proposal for European security has the less than hidden goal of stopping and rolling back western influence. Rather than moving into the 21st century, Moscow seems determined to go back to the kind of spheres of influence thinking associated with the 19th century.
Would the granting of MAP to Georgia in Bucharest have been enough to deter Moscow ? What would have deterred Moscow? After all, the Alliance was deeply divided, and a divided and weak Alliance is hardly the best deterrent mechanism. It seems to me that a divided alliance with shaky security guarantees invites aggression.
I think the West made four big mistakes. The first was agreeing to faux peacekeeping arrangements on the ground in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow to both manipulate the situation on the ground and later to use as a cover to prepare its attack. Maybe this was the best that was possible in the early 1990s but by the late 19090s we should have recognized that this system was fatally flawed, contained within it the seeds for a future war and pushed hard for revisions and a broader internationalization. We need to understand that the whole system of European security we labored to build over the past twenty years – with all of its elaborate conflict prevention mechanism of the OSCE and UN – essentially failed in Georgia in August 2008
Second, even though I personally supported Kosovo conditional independence, I think we need to recognize that it made Georgia more vulnerable and created a precedent that Moscow used to move against Tbilisi. It accelerated the path to war. Either we needed to have a fallback plan to protect Georgia from the fallout of our own policy or we should have moved slower. I think the chapter of my book on Kosovo pretty clearly shows – at times in dramatic form – how then President Putin used the Kosovo precedent against Georgia.
Third, I have come to the conclusion that the way NATO handled the MAP issues at the Bucharest summit also accelerated the path to war. The Bucharest outcome might have emboldened it. I know Presidents Basescu, Adamkus and Kaczynski fought hard for that language and are proud of their role. And our hope was that that language would reassure the Georgians and deter the Russians. But I am afraid it didn’t work. And it didn’t work for one simple reason. People didn’t believe that language amounted to a qualitative increase in NATO’s commitment to Georgia. Everyone could see how badly divided the Alliance still was. And of course NATO didn’t lift a finger when the Russian subsequently escalated pressure on Georgia after the summit. At the end of the day, there is no escaping the fact that the problem in Bucharest was NATO’s lack of unity and its failure to reach a commitment to help Georgia on the ground in meaningful ways, which could have deterred Russia’s later actions. The question of what senior Russian officials really thought and how Putin interpreted Bucharest is buried in the Kremlin. I have concluded that the Russians were surprised, that Bucharest produced better language for Georgia and Ukraine than they ever expected, but that they also saw how badly divided the alliance still was and concluded – correctly in my view – that the Alliance was not yet prepared to really come to Georgia’s assistance yet but that momentum to do so was likely to grow and that if they wanted to stop that process, they needed to act sooner rather than later. To Russia that meant there was a window of opportunity to exploit NATO’s disunity and to thwart Georgia’s path to membership. Our mistake was not backing up that Bucharest language real and making it mean something politically and even militarily. During the long buildup to August 2008 the West – be in Washington or Brussels – never once called Moscow to draw clear red lines and to warn Russia that if it invaded Georgia, they would be jeopardizing their relationship with us. Either we didn’t believe the Russians would really do it or we didn’t think Georgia was important enough – or some combination of the two.
Finally, let’s look in the mirror and ask ourselves why the West is somewhat schizophrenic in its policies towards the Balkans and the Southern Caucasus. We talked about the indivisibility of security in Europe but we don’t practice it. We make a huge investment in the Balkans but there was no similar investment or even a fraction thereof in the southern Caucasus. My friend Ivan Krastev calls this our “strategic schizophrenia.” This is a war that a greater Western effort politically and diplomatically – with more observers on the ground et al – could and should have prevented.
So are there some lessons that the euro-Atlantic community should learn from “this little war that shook the world” in order to consolidate the “deterrence value” of NATO? For example is the strategic reassurance of Poland and the Baltic states a necessary step? And to what extent? What does a credible security guarantee mean today? Contingency planning, collective military exercises or even we must take into consideration the deploying of US military assets on their territories?
I also wrote this book because I wanted to start a debate – about the lessons we should draw from the Russo-Georgian war, about why or consist on enlargement is in danger of crumbling and how the US and Europe need to rethink what we are doing. Obviously one aspect of what needs to be done is strategic reassurance – and I am cautiously optimistic that the Alliance is on the right track in addressing that concern. But I think the questions we need to address are actually much bigger. I feel the current situating is a little bit like the early 1990s when the Alliance was adrift and unsure which way to go. We need to a new strategy on how to couple reassurance for Central and Eastern Europe with re-engagement with Russia. We need a new balance in what we call the home mission of NATO here on the continent and away or expeditionary missions. We need a new way to work together politically that takes both the EU and NATO into account. And we need a new debate and consensus on how much we care about future enlargement and why. I only hope my little book made a modest contribution to helping to start that debate.
The interview was published in Magazine 22, March 2010.