Recent fighting between Russian and Georgian forces (ostensibly over Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia) has spawned fears of a widening war in the Caucasus, Moscow’s resurging military aggressiveness, and the perceived inability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to deal with either.
So far, the sum total of the West’s response to the Russian invasion has been negligible. And experts contend the invasion may be the kick-start needed to re-galvanize the nearly 60-year-old mutual-defense alliance formed during the early years of the Cold War as a means of collective defense against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, a kick-start doesn’t help Georgia today.
A former Soviet satellite state turned loyal friend of America, Georgia is an official member of NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and a candidate for full membership in NATO. Therein lies the problem for Moscow.
“Russia has made clear — in statement after statement — that they would do everything they could to stop Georgia from joining NATO,” Zeyno Baran, a Eurasian expert at the Hudson Institute, tells HUMAN EVENTS. “Under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia has attempted to reestablish itself as a major power in a way that challenges the U.S. and the West, and they are attempting to frighten and dissuade former Soviet states like Georgia from moving out of the Russian orbit and closer toward the West.”
As of this writing, Russia has reportedly halted its invasion — a combined land, sea, and air operation launched August 7. Russian soldiers, however, remain on sovereign Georgian territory, resistance continues, and the international community is demanding Russia immediately and completely withdraw its forces. Those demands may be falling on deaf ears.
Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev may have correctly calculated that Russia’s overwhelming military superiority, the precise timing of the invasion, and the West’s unwillingness to respond, would result in a successful military campaign which would enable Russia to reassert its dominance in the region and beyond. Some sources are telling me, “They may have overplayed their hand.” That remains to be seen.
I mention to Baran that in the 21st Century — with our interconnected oil-based market economies and mutual challenges in countering terrorism and nuclear proliferation — challenging the West militarily is not the way to work and play well with others.
“Absolutely right,” she says. “But that is not how the Russians think.”
According to Baran — because many of Russia’s senior political leaders come from backgrounds in that country’s intelligence/security services [KGB, FSB, etc.] — they continue to have a Cold War mindset. “They also use old arguments — like the ones used in the 19th century to come to the defense of the Balkan Orthodox community — to justify their actions in 2008,” she says.
Brig. Gen. Dieter Farwick (German Army, ret.), the former director of Germany’s military intelligence office and the current editor-in-chief of World Security Network, agrees.
“Medvedev and Putin will exploit any perceived Western weakness to push NATO’s influence back, to keep Georgia and Ukraine away from NATO and the European Union,” Farwick tells HUMAN EVENTS. “Russia’s leadership wants to show a strong Russia — especially looking at the ‘near abroad’ [former Soviet states surrounding Russia]. And based upon the high revenues from oil and gas exports, Russia wants to exploit a situation wherein most European countries — dependent on Russian oil and gas — prefer the politics of cooperation with Russia rather than the politics of confrontation.”
In other words, “appeasement is in,” says Farwick. And Russia correctly gambled on the West’s appeasement — and NATO’s inaction — long before the first motor-rifle battalion began rolling forward.
On April 3, 2008, NATO leaders issued a declaration stating that Georgia would “become a member of NATO” following “a period of intensive engagement” addressing questions “still outstanding” on its membership action plan application. The declaration — spiking the blood-pressure of Putin and his pals — added that both Georgia and Ukraine (also applying for membership) had “made valuable contributions” to NATO operations, and that progress on the applications would be assessed in December 2008.
Aside from Georgia’s membership in the EAPC, it has provided support to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and — until it was invaded by Russia — Georgia maintained the third-largest contingent of coalition troops in Iraq (the U.S. was first, the UK second).
Since the invasion last week, U.S. Air Force transports have airlifted hundreds of Georgian soldiers from Iraq to the fighting on their homefront, which has also angered the Russians. Putin even went so far as to accuse Washington of providing direct military assistance to Russia’s enemies.
According to the Times of London, Putin said, “It is a shame that some of our partners are not helping us but, essentially, are hindering us,” and “[Georgian forces] razed ten [South] Ossetian villages at once, ran over elderly people and children with tanks and burnt civilians alive in their sheds.” Putin added, according to Reuters, “Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO … is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures."
Not so, says Baran, who has predicted for months that “something was going to happen,” and it would be in August.
“Putin’s claims are outright lies,” she says. “But people believe them because the media has bought into Russian public relations: that PR machine has paid millions of dollars in influence money in Washington and in the European capitals.”
Baran adds, “For months [since the April NATO summit] the Russians have repeatedly violated Georgian airspace, launched limited attacks, and generally tried to provoke a large-scale military confrontation.” Anything to make Georgia appear too unstable, too risky to bring into the NATO fold.
“It was obvious what was going to happen, but nobody in America and Europe really believed it: They just wanted to wish it away,” says Baran. “There is a naiveté in the West: a belief that other people think and operate like the West. This is the same response to what we see with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatening to nuke Israel. No one wants to believe it because it seems incomprehensible.”
If you don’t confront the bullies, they will be “emboldened,” she says.
The lack of response to events in Georgia may temporarily embolden Moscow, but on the flipside strengthen the commitment of NATO members to the alliance. NATO has gone to great lengths to ensure Russia that it is not a coalition of belligerents aimed at encircling that country, but a means of promoting defense and mutual cooperation among states in the region. In fact, a NATO-Russia Council — officially a “venue for advancing the relationship between NATO and Russia” — has existed since 2002.
But Gen. Farwick says, “If there is one lesson to be learned from history, it’s that the leopard never changes his spots.”