Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Georgia On My Mind

The EU has taken a relatively mild stand on Georgia--delay in negotiations on "partnership" until Russian troops have withdrawn to their pre-invasion positions (a vague criterion, given their pre-invasion presence in South Ossetia), no sanctions--a stand manifestly in line with the wishes of current EU council president Nicolas Sarkozy. Vladimir Putin has expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the special EU summit--something of a mixed blessing for Sarkozy, who is no doubt pleased that his leadership prevailed but who must nevertheless fend off allegations of appeasement.

In a very interesting exchange with Libé Europe correspondent Jean Quatremer, Sarkozy expanded a bit on his thinking. (For Quatremer's original post and Sarko's response, see here and here.) The Georgian events have precipitated a variety of responses. There has been moral outrage in the name of defense of human rights, and there has been anti-imperial outrage on the part of those who see Russia as an inveterate oppressor of small nations rather than a great power asserting its interests and drawing lines around its sphere of influence. There has also been a realist reaction, of which Quatremer's article represents one line: Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas is a potential vulnerability, so that for the sake of European security the EU must pursue a diplomatic accommodation with Russia, the terms of which will be unfavorable to Europe unless the EU can also muster a credible military force to raise the cost of Russian non-compliance.

Sarkozy, who can do a passable imitation of an outraged defender of human rights or denouncer of imperial depredations when it suits his purposes, as in Burma or Tibet, is nevertheless fundamentally a realist, though by no means a cynic. Although he has counted up the divisions under the command of the Pope, as it were, he remembers quite well that all of Russia's divisions were not equal to the Pope's influence in Poland, for example, or in other countries of the East. He remembers, too, that all of America's divisions were not enough to ward off debacle in Vietnam and Iraq. It's interesting that in his response to Quatremer he chose to emphasize the costs of cold war, the negative consequences of flexing biceps and indulging in loud but ineffective bluster. "Give peace a chance," he seems to be saying, but with his eyes open. There are other ways to deal with the Russians than by threatening them with a war that no one, including the United States, is actually willing to fight or capable of waging. This is not tantamount to surrender, he says. The Russians want things from us as well. Let's see what we can get by threatening to withhold some of what they want.

Is this a naïve position? The answer depends on how you interpret Russian behavior, on how you judge Putin's motives, on how you assess the various factions beyond Putin and Medvedev that influence Russian decisions. I personally think Sarkozy is right to try to explore these imponderables further before taking irrevocable steps. I think his course is far more mature and far more "realist" than the Bush administration's precipitate conclusion of an antimissile deal with Poland, a deal contrived to push those Russian factions further in the wrong direction, compounding previous errors of American policy with respect to Russia. The Russians, it must be recognized, have shown restraint in Georgia. For one thing, they have not pushed their advantage to try to topple Saakashvili. They are content to bide their time and let the mounting internal opposition to his rash provocation run its course. They did not, as far as I can see, inflict nearly as much damage as they might have done. And they have pulled back, even if they have also encouraged the two separatist regions to declare their independence from Georgia. Have they done less than they promised Sarkozy? Only he and they know for sure, but his actions in reining in anti-Russian sentiment in the EU suggest that, as far as he is concerned, they've kept their part of the bargain, and now he is keeping his, waiting to see where things go from here. I think he's handled the crisis rather well, but perhaps I'm allowing my judgment to be clouded by my dislike of the bellicose rhetoric out of Washington.

UPDATE: Hubert Védrine's take: he agrees with me, so of course he's right.


Anonymous said...

I agreed with you up to the sentence:

"The Russians, it must be recognized, have shown restraint in Georgia."

From my perch in Germany, the most significant development this week was that, in spite of sharp disagreement among its ranks, Europe spoke with one voice under the leadership of Sarkozy and Merkel, who appear to have found common ground in spite of sharp personal differences. To achieve this, Sarkozy and the moderates had to promise to crank up the pressure if progress is not made. I have been a fan of Sarkozy from the start, a clear-eyed one with no illusions about his weaknesses. I admire the French for having had the courage to vote him in and try an alternative route of desperately-neeeded reform. Germany lost its nerve at the last minute and is now slipping back to the left and old mistakes in spite of record employment levels.

My gripe with you from the start Art is your refusal to look closely at what Russia has done and is trying to do in Georgia. You brush over the fact that they now have "liberated" parts of Georgia from Georgia. Annexation might be a better term. Let's see how the renegade provinces fare under Russian tutelage. Independence? Snort.

The most plausible explanation for what happened is that Russia has been cranking up the pressure for months and years, looking for an opportunity to pull the plug, encouraging ethnic cleansing in Ossetia and Abkhazia. I doubt seriously that Russia would have stopped its plans if Georgia had not responded to the attacks against its troops in S. Ossetia. Perhaps they would have limited their activities to the provinces, but their goal would have been reached sooner or later. Defenders of Russia here claim that Russia just wants calm on its borders. Then why are they sowing discord in every neighboring country?

As for restraint, moving deep into Georgia, destroying infrastructure, blockading ports, causing the shutdown of pipelines, well, that is not restraint to me. Without in any way trying to impugn you, I see you as coming at this from the left. I lived in France when the Russians imposed martial law on Poland, and I remember the reflexive looking away on the left. It behooves people on the left to cry foul. To refuse to do so simply because the issue is being instrumentalized by the right is not an adequate excuse.

Sorry for the lecturing tone. Glad you're following up on the issue.

Unknown said...

When NATO decided to back the Kosovar separatists, the US bombed Belgrade, disabled the entire Serbian electrical grid, destroyed railroad bridges throughout Serbia (hitting a moving train in the process), and even bombed the Chinese Embassy. Yet it, too, acted with "restraint." That is my point: large-power warfare is a blunt instrument for settling ethnic regional quarrels.

As for my being from the Left, if you mean to imply that I have a residual soft spot for the erstwhile home of "socialism in one country," you're wrong. I might return the compliment and suggest that your position demonstrates that you come from the Right (as you make clear in any case), which tends to hold that Our Side can do no wrong and the Other Side can do no right, no matter what the conflict.

I am not oblivious to recent Russian brutalities: Grozny, for example. And I would not look upon a Russian attack on Poland, Estonia, etc., quite as calmly as I look upon the Russian response to a Georgian provocation, regardless of any "ratcheting up" of pressure. You ignore the fact that the vast majority of South Ossetians do not want to be part of Georgia any more than the vast majority of Kosovars wanted to be part of Serbia. While I do not believe that international borders should generally be subject to revision at the whim of ethnic groups that happen to constitute a regional majority, I do think that the existence of historical animosities complicates the moral calculus when conflict erupts. And whatever moral equivalence or inequivalence one wants to establish between Kosovo and Ossetia, the fact is that the Russians are hard put to see the difference.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it inaccurate to refer to the Bush administration's missile deal as "precipitate"? They have been pushing this deal for quite a while, and the only sudden thing was the Poles' decision to accept it, presumably based on their reevaluation of the threat from Russia.
It seems to me that, with the possible exception of the Georgians, all parties are acting rationally. Russia has demonstrated her ability and willingness to be a regional power. The EU, knowing it is powerless to stop her, is trying to see what it can get by being nice. The US, which could stop Russia if it wanted to, is making it clear that a) it won't do anything about Georgia, but b) it might well do something if Russia pushes further. Finally the Poles have decided that the US military is a better deterrent than European diplomacy. Given their different situations, there is no reason to expect the US, the EU and Poland to respond the same way.

Anonymous said...

I certainly did not place you on the non-democratic left, merely left of center from the US perspecitve.

For the record, the last and only time that I voted for a Republican candidate was during my first election, still a teenager, when I refused to vote for Jimmy Carter. Since then I always have been for Democrats. To state that I am "on the Right" is, at best, merely an indication of how far to the left you are.

You have swallowed the line that Georgia "provoked" Russia without closer examination of the build-up to this event, as I already pointed out. To equate Kosovo with Georgia also is a dishonest comparison that attempts to obscure the vast differences in the two situations, the scale of the ethnic cleansing, the atrocities and oppression engaged in by Milosevic.

Stick to covering France, Art. I won't comment further on Georgia here for risk of being banned as a troll.

Unknown said...

I didn't take your comment as a troll. I thought it was a fair criticism, and I'm not entirely sure of the ground on which I stand, so I welcome the challenge. I do nevertheless think that the Kosovo and Ossetia cases are more comparable than you allow. I also acknowledge the buildup to the provocation, but I think one then also has allow the buildup to the buildup, namely, the push to include Georgia in NATO.

Anonymous said...

I found the following post at Daniel Drezner's blog interesting, because it tries to put the Russian move in perspective.


(Drezner is a moderate Republican with substantive intenational policy expertise.)

The ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia and S. Ossetia of Georgians, combined with the annexation, er liberation, of what has been recognized by virtually every country as Georgian territory may well come to be recognized as a Russian own goal. If it accelerates the passing of power from Putin to someone else, so much the better. It is time for Russia to move on from Putin and his KGB-style leadership. He's been able to keep the oligarchs in line to date with the example of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who has applied for early release), but you know they have to be smarting economically after the market fall -- and whenever they try to pass as arrivé in the West.

As for Georgia in NATO, Sarkozy and Merkel nixed that earlier this year for the foreseeable future. They were not even willing to offer Georgia a concrete action plan. This was a setback for Bush and for Georgia. One might argue with hindsight that it encouraged the Russians to be more aggressive. I'm reluctant to throw out the term appeasement - a term that Richard Holbrook has used, but I think it is no coincidence that, post-annexation, Merkel now has started talking about Georgia being put on a track for NATO membership. She grew up in Russian-dominated East Germany and knows how little respect the Russian Bear has for perceived weakness.