The Russo-Georgian War and great power politics
Gregory Gleason

The Russo-Georgian war is a demonstration that Russia has embarked upon a new grand strategy.  Russia’s goal is to establish a dominant position in the post-Soviet space by creating a special sphere of Russian influence.  The Kremlin seeks to project an image of the willingness and ability to employ armed force.  But the longer-term strategic Kremlin goal is to divide opposing interests by forcing a wedge into foreign coalitions that have crystallized along the lines of shared government and values.  Russian leaders envisage Georgia’s breakaway provinces as pawns in a new phase of Great Power politics.  The Kremlin sees conflict as a means to divide foreign coalitions along the lines of energy, power, and perception.  The “Five Day War” is only the first skirmish in this plan.  

BACKGROUND:   Newly elected Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in Berlin in June 2008, sketched his foreign policy plans for Russia.  Medvedev’s “Berlin Initiative” outlined a plan for creating a new pan-European security organization that would basically replace NATO and divide the Euro-Atlantic community.  Medvedev’s plan leaves no place at the European table for the United States.  The plan to form a new European security community would form stronger links with the western countries of “old Europe”, and diminish the influence of Russia’s closer neighbors of “new Europe.” 

Medvedev’s plan is not merely diplomacy; it is grand strategy.  Russia’s resurgence is fueled by soaring oil prices. Russia’s renewed foreign policy clout flows from Europe’s dependency on natural gas from eastern suppliers.  Russia, stung by the humiliation and indignity of a grueling period of post-communist economic recovery has been able to use its “energy advantage” and neo-mercantilist economic policy to regain an important measure of its historical role. But Premier Putin’s and President Medvedev’s considerable popular success in Russia is not because they rule well; it is because they promise to restore a role for Russia in today’s world.  The appeal of these leaders is more psychological than political.

Russia’s long-practiced policy of dividing opponents comes as no surprise to Russia’s geographical neighbors.  After the Russo-Georgian war broke out, political leaders of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Ukraine were quick to throw support behind Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili and condemn Russia’s military occupation of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and neighboring Georgian regions.

Political leaders in Russia’s other neighboring states chose discretion over valor; Most withheld any statement.  Even Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka, generally a dyed-in-the-wool defender of all things Soviet and post-Soviet, withheld comment on the Georgian imbroglio for nearly two weeks until the Russian leaders twisted his arm and prodded him into such obsequious statements as those reported in the widely read Russian newspaper Kommersant, that the Russian military operation was done “calmly, wisely and beautifully.”

The leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the recently established anti-separatist alliance in which Russia plays a major role, met on August 28, 2008 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.  Russia urged the leaders to endorse Russia’s actions and recognize national independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  The SCO communiqué which followed the meeting mustered lukewarm endorsement of Russia’s military operation but no diplomatic recognition of the breakaway territories.

The members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a 7-member post-Soviet security organization which Russia largely controls, rattled sabers speaking of the importance of the CSTO reorganizing to form a counter-bloc to NATO and managed to endorse Russia’s Ossetia operation.  But the other CSTO members also stopped short of diplomatic recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

IMPLICATIONS:  Intercession to prevent a renewal of armed conflict was the first priority in the six-point cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Now attention has turned to the importance of Georgian reconstruction.  Georgia occupies a pivotal position in the key East-West energy corridor.  This energy corridor is of vital importance to both European consumers and Central Asian energy producers, not only due to the risk of higher prices in the short term but also due to the long term importance of countering tendencies toward supply-side monopolization.  In the long run, ensuring the diversity of energy supply routes is no less important than the assurance of continued supply.  Consequently, the viability of a democratic and independent Georgia is one of the greatest challenges facing Euro-Atlantic unity.

In efforts to counter the influence Russia’s expansionist tendencies, a lesson should be learned from the reticence of Russia’s closest neighbors and staunchest supporters to welcome the idea of a resurgent Russian empire.  The “common eastern experience” of these countries has taught them that wedge politics is a double-edged sword; it cuts both ways.  A unifying influence of Russian foreign policy throughout the Eurasian region would be advantageous to many of the countries if it did not also imply such great risks.  Medvedev’s idea of a new all-European security community to prevent “frozen conflicts” from breaking into violence runs counter the chief lesson of the Russo-Georgian war.  The leaders in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova and the Central Asian states also look at the Russo-Georgian war from their own perspectives, all of which are different and sometimes contradictory.  

Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, and Sergei Lavrov have uniformly stressed that the Russian military operation in Ossetia was to save lives and to give recognition to the principle of national self-determination in a way that upheld international law.   But few of Russia’s neighbors have forgotten the brutal Russian resistance to national independence movements in the adjoining breakaway region of Russia in the north Caucasus during the two Chechen wars.  Few have forgotten Russia’s resistance to separatist movements in Dagestan or Tatarstan.  It is widely appreciated that the principles of national sovereignty and national self-determination are sometimes 180 degrees in contradiction.  No set of solutions that depends on fiat or even less, on violence, is going to permanently resolve these issues anywhere in the modern world.

CONCLUSIONS:  Russia’s rapid economic recovery has fueled growing prosperity, but it has also encouraged a resurgence of foreign policy ambitions that are not in Russia’s best long-term interests.  What Russia needs to do now is not to increase reliance on primary commodity exports and the expansion of its foreign sphere of influence.  What Russia needs to do is to stimulate retooling of its society based on the country’s best values and the emerging demands of the twenty-first century, emphasizing an information-based economy oriented towards improved business practices, innovation, and increased productivity. 

Indeed, Russia’s development strategy which relies on its ability to divide European interests is not the best approach from the point of view of Russia’s material interests. 

The west should not ignore this strategy.  But nor should the west fear this strategy to the extent that it overreacts.  Responding to Georgia’s existential threat must be first on the agenda.  But beyond that, it should be recognized that there are many assets in Great Power politics that go beyond and are often more effective than confrontation and demonstrations of resolve.  Russia’s neighbors are sufficiently realistic in their assessments of Russia’s foreign policy that they are unlikely to bandwagon in support of a bloc opposing generally accepted values of democracy, fair play and the rule of law.  In any case, Russia’s neighbors are unlikely to do that unless they have no other alternative.  Efforts should therefore focus on ensuring that there are other alternatives.

Gregory Gleason is professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Government. First published in the CACI Analyst: