The fifth anniversary of the Caucasian war between Russia and Georgia has touched off a wave of interviews and reminiscences about this event. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili did not stay out of this either. He told the Rustavi-2 TV channel about the war and its causes (Andrei Illarionov posted the print version of this interview in his blog at echo.msk.ru). The domestic situation in his country is by no means the last factor that prompted him to do so. But we are more interested in external circumstances as well as in the attitudes of the world’s biggest players who were directly involved in those events.
The Caucasian war was the apex of Russia’s aggressive policy towards her neighbors – the apex because this time Russia resorted to military force to preserve its influence in a strategically important region. In a way, the conflict became a watershed in Russian politics. From then on, the First Capital City’s aggressiveness grew before our eyes, even though there were no more large-scale armed clashes. As a neighboring capital likes to say, they switched to the policy of “soft power.” At the moment, this is manifested in trade wars, customs pressure, and sometimes in the toughening of the migration law and arbitrary police actions against migrants. Also in this line are threats to deport all migrants from the neighboring counties and thus create economic and financial difficulties for the latter.
We have also heard in the last while about the application of this method to Ukrainian citizens in Russia. It is being announced openly that if Kyiv joins the Customs Union, the Ukrainian migrants will be left intact. Incidentally, shortly before the Caucasian war, there were similar threats to Georgia on the same grounds: if you join NATO, you’ll face the music. As it follows from Saakashvili’s interview, the Georgian side accepted even this to cajole Moscow. “We said we were prepared to reject NATO and sign a treaty under which we will suspend rapprochement with the US and you will help us achieve progress in the problem of [breakaway] territories,” Saakashvili said.
The Russians must have considered this as a sign of weakness, which only increased the aggressiveness of Putin and Medvedev. Besides, the then tandem was in bad need, out of domestic considerations, of a small victorious war. “But Putin did not even think on this. He looked at us, smiled, and said: ‘Look, guys, we are not going to exchange your territories for your geopolitical orientation,’ which meant that they would in any case seize the territories,” the president noted.
This raises a question: what makes Moscow so bold? The answer should be sought in the attitude of the West, first of all, Europe and the US.
It is common knowledge that the aggressor behaves brazenly only when he is not afraid of adequate retaliatory actions. The Sudeten crisis is a typical example. At its first stage, in the spring and summer of 1938, when the USSR and France announced they would support Czechoslovakia, which might include military aid to Prague, Hitler had to step back and begin negotiations. There was every possibility to stop the aggressor, and world history could have taken a totally different course. But as soon as the Western powers changed their attitude and London and Paris opted for appeasement, the aggressor threw aside all restraint and finally received the Sudeten region with the consent of British Premier Chamberlain and his French counterpart Daladier. The way to a worldwide blaze was cleared.
We are not drawing a straight parallel between the 1938 crisis in the Sudeten and the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, but lack of clarity and firmness in supporting Tbilisi, first of all, on the US part, untied Moscow’s hands. It was clear to Russia that Georgia was left alone and nobody will hinder tearing away a part of its territory or, if possible, seizing the whole country.
It would be wrong to say that Europe was blind. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier assessed the situation quite soberly. Saakashvili quoted him as saying quite clearly in Tbilisi: “They will be more and more shooting at you and reinforcing their troops, and at a certain moment you will have to use military force in response, which will trigger a big war.” On the other hand, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounded rather amiable: “Well, is this really a war? Forget it altogether. The Russians will never do it.” The Kremlin was very well aware of Washington’s mood and finally “did it.” Only then did the US have to send its warship to the Black Sea in order to give Georgia at least some support. This may have saved the country from total occupation, but the aggressor still won his prize.
Europe firmly sticks to the opinion that if the European Union had not allowed itself to be led by Russian diplomacy in 2006-08 and agreed to grant Ukraine and Georgia the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), there would have been no Caucasian war. Facing a united stand of Europe and the US, the Kremlin would have thought twice before plunging into armed adventures. Appeasers never learn the lessons of history and prefer to indulge in populism and pacifism. The Sudeten appeasement resulted in the occupation of Paris and total-scale bombings of London, and the one that occurred five years ago led to the seizure of some Georgian territories.
August is a month of vacations. It is now a bad tradition to explain by this the West’s sluggish reaction to Russia’s unfriendly actions against her neighbors. We can see all this today on the example of Ukraine.
Moscowhas unleashed a wide-scale trade and customs war against Kyiv in order to thwart, one way or another, the signing of the Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November. It is a major diplomatic defeat for Russia and Putin personally. For, in addition to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are also supposed to sign an agreement like this, and Armenia intends to join them in 2014. Azerbaijan is also expected to take part in the summit. Even Belarus’ Lukashenko wouldn’t mind receiving an invitation to the event.
Clearly, all this throws the Kremlin into a fit of fury. In Georgia, the new government has failed to meet the expectations of pro-Russian orientation. There is a real prospect that a pro-Western course will be regained and Russia will see her influence in the South Caucasus reduced. Add to this the ever-growing complications in the relations with Armenia, and the picture will become totally joyless for the Russian government.
This makes it clear why the stakes in the battle for Ukraine are high and why there has been so much bitterness lately. The departure of Ukraine not only puts the tin lid on the Moscow elite’s illusions about reintegrating Greater Russia, but also means a philosophical and psychological trauma for all the adepts of the so-called Slavic unity and the unbreakable ties between the three branches of the Great Russian People. This may have – perhaps some time later – serious political consequences for Putin and his regime.
Being aware that no military actions against Ukraine are possible, the First Capital City has opted for economic and financial pressure. Problems will be created by any means in many spheres of our relations, including the information field. It is easy to assume that from September onwards we will see an ever-increasing flow of information that defiles the European course of our country and forecasts an economic collapse in case the Agreement is signed in Vilnius.
It is a different question why Ukraine turned out to be unprepared for such a wide-scale trade war. It is much more important what stand our future association partners will take. Can we rely on them in this unfolding confrontation? There is no unambiguous answer so far.
The experience of the events that followed the Caucasian war shows that Moscow is not much responsive to persuasions and never stints on promises which it is not going to keep, even if they are committed to paper. The abovementioned Steinmeier, who moderated the talks between Georgia and Russia, has repeatedly said that Moscow does not meet the commitment to withdraw its troops from the Georgian territory. And it is clear why – an aggressor cannot be brought to reason by way of talks, for he only understands the language of firmness and force.
If Europe is really interested in the Eastern Partnership, it should immediately say in clear-cut and no uncertain terms that it supports its future association partners – first of all, Ukraine – and will, if necessary, work out measures to be taken against the too brazen northern neighbor of ours. They should do so immediately, without waiting for the end of the vacation season. For Moscow is not waiting. Sergei Glaziev, an advisor to the president of Russia, who “is in charge of pressure on Ukraine” and, according to some reports, the future ambassador to Kyiv, has said bluntly that the border problems were a trial of tough customs administration to be applied if Ukraine disobeys further.
The European Union has enough means of leverage over Moscow, for example, within the WTO framework. It may take months to inquire into Russian actions, but it is also possible to act quickly and decisively. Sanctions are the language the Kemlin understands only too well. For this reason it opposes in any way similar measures against, for example, Iran. There are also other tools in the hands of Brussels and major European capitals – above all, Berlin. It should be made clear in no uncertain terms even to the most bellicose elements in Moscow that the Association Agreement is bound to be signed in Vilnius in November and, therefore, the Kremlin must not harbor any illusions about Ukraine reversing her European position. The accession of Ukraine to the family of European nations must be irreversible.
Naturally, what will really matter in the conditions of pressure are the actions of Kyiv. Ukraine must fully meet the commitments she took and do her best to enact them into law by November. In the light of the latest events, Russia has given a good impetus to this process.
If the Ukrainian leadership shows determination and resoluteness this time and, instead of cajoling the violent neighbor, takes adequate retaliatory actions (and it has all that is needed for this), our partners will see that we really wish to be in Europe.
And then it will be their turn to act, irrespective of the temperature of outside air and the condition of the cloud cover at health resorts.