Georgia and Russia
Jan 21st 2010
From The Economist print edition
An American take on a war that fed conspiracies throughout Europe
A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West. By Ronald Asmus. Palgrave Macmillan; 250 pages; $27 and £20.
TWO points about the war in Georgia in 2008 have stuck in outsiders’ memories. One is that it was quite unexpected. The other is that Georgia started it. Both, in Ronald Asmus’s view, are wrong.
The real cause of the war, he argues, was Russia’s determination to block Georgia’s American-educated and America-loving president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He had embarked on “a crash course to turn Georgia from a semi-failed state into a reform tiger that could become the catalyst for creating a democratic pro-Western corridor in the southern Caucasus…it was a breathtaking vision.”
Mr Asmus’s metaphors may be breathtakingly mixed, but his big point is right. Situated on the most promising east-west route for oil and gas, Georgia was becoming an economic and political success story under Mr Saakashvili, who took power in the “Rose revolution” of 2003. Its pluralism was a profound challenge to the authoritarian crony capitalism taking root in Russia under Vladimir Putin.
Mr Saakashvili’s growing sway in two Russian-backed breakaway regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, was also an increasing nuisance for the Kremlin. He had restored Georgian control over a corner of Abkhazia and set up a loyalist administration inside South Ossetia—an untidy place with villages of varying ethnic and political make-up.
For Russia, that was intolerable, Mr Asmus argues. The Kremlin, therefore, deliberately provoked the Georgian leader into starting a war that he was bound to lose. Humiliating Georgia was also a way of paying back NATO for the recognition of Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia. And it signalled the limits of America’s role in Russia’s back yard.
Mr Asmus writes with authority. He is a former American official who masterminded the first enlargement of NATO to the ex-communist east. In his office, now at a Brussels think-tank, souvenirs include a commemorative sword given by the “grateful nation of Poland”. He has lobbied hard for new candidates, including the Baltic states, which joined NATO in 2004, and most recently for Georgia.
His book lays bare the dilemma facing Mr Saakashvili in the summer of 2008. Russian provocations against Georgia had been escalating for months, with a mixture of economic pressure, subversion and military attacks, chiefly by air. The West’s response was feeble. It made anodyne pleas to both sides to refrain from using force. It was not prepared to say unequivocally to Russia that destabilising Georgia would have serious inevitable consequences.
On July 29th 2008, Russia’s proxies in South Ossetia started shelling pro-Georgian villages there. What was Mr Saakashvili supposed to do? If he ignored the shelling, leaving his supporters to flee or be killed, the loss of prestige would be catastrophic. His pleas to the outside world to intervene were ignored. Moreover, Mr Saakashvili received intelligence (probably exaggerated) that large numbers of Russian troops were crossing into South Ossetia, perhaps as reinforcements, perhaps as a prelude to a full-scale invasion.
Mr Saakashvili decided to act at once, ordering troops into South Ossetia to stop the shelling but not to fight the Russian troops there. As Mr Asmus recounts with painful clarity, that decision was a disaster. The Georgian army lacked plans, troops, equipment, training and communications. All it had was hopes of a quick victory, of Russian hesitancy and of Western support. In fact, huge Russian reinforcements poured in, and within a few days were poised to take Tbilisi.
America stood back, though Mr Asmus gives an intriguing hint that at least some officials were arguing, albeit tentatively and unsuccessfully, for a military response to defend Georgia. That could have ended the war quickly—or led to a terrifying escalation. In the end, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, on behalf of the European Union, brokered a messy ceasefire.
The book’s detailed inside accounts of Georgian and Western manoeuvring before, during and after the war are gripping. Mr Asmus is caustic about the outside world’s failure to forestall the conflict. Hundreds of people died and many thousands of people lost their homes because of that. In particular he highlights the weakness of NATO (crippled by feuding over the Iraq war) and of the self-centred and complacent EU.
He is rather kinder—too kind, many might feel—to the Georgians. Many decisions and actions may have been mistaken and deserve scrutiny, he concedes. But the author flinches from condemning even the most lamentable mistakes outright. In particular, the heavy-handed crackdown on opposition demonstrators and media in November 2007 played a big role in tarnishing Georgia’s image abroad. This deserves more than the couple of sentences Mr Asmus devotes to it here. Mr Saakashvili’s exasperating habits were similarly damaging: disorganisation, self-indulgence, verbosity, favouritism and vindictiveness are just a few. Mr Asmus also ignores how far the Georgian leadership’s American cheerleaders, especially in some corners of the Republican Party, may have made it overconfident.
Insights from the Russian side are also missing (because officials in Moscow declined to talk to him, says Mr Asmus). What were the Kremlin’s real war aims? How badly did Russia’s military forces do? What conclusions did Russian leaders draw? The definitive book on that is still to come, but Mr Asmus’s work sets a high standard.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Georgia and Russia