How the West Can Stand Up to Russia

The current conflict between Russia and Georgia is more than the culmination of an ongoing feud between two politically and ideologically opposed neighbors; it is not simply a Russian effort to punish the Georgian government, which has been earnestly seeking full and active participation with the United States and its European allies on a number of fronts. In fact, Russia's use of force in Georgia represents a bold demonstration of Russian disdain for the post-Cold War international order established by the democratic West. The United States would be wise to acknowledge the seriousness of this challenge, and craft its policy responses accordingly.

Resident Fellow
Mauro De Lorenzo
Resident Scholar
Gary J. Schmitt
Given the cutthroat politics Moscow has practiced at home and abroad in recent years--with only the softest protests from the U.S. and its allies--no one should be surprised by Russia's decision to conquer the two breakaway regions of Georgia. Nevertheless, it should once and for all disabuse policy makers in Washington and Brussels of hopes that Russia intends to become part of the post-Cold War condominium of democratic peace in Europe. The point of the Kremlin's invasion of Georgia, which now threatens the capital city of Tbilisi, is to demonstrate to the world how impotent that security order has become.

For Moscow, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's mistake in finally taking the bait of Russian provocations and ordering his troops in South Ossetia last week was the opening they sought--and for which they had been planning for some time.

At stake are international law, energy security, NATO's future, and American credibility when it comes to supporting new democracies.

South Ossetia is not, as some have suggested, tit-for-tat payback for American and European recognition, over Russian objections, of Kosovo's independence from Serbia. Russia has been "at war" with democratic Georgia for some time. Driven to distraction by Mr. Saakashvili's assertiveness and Georgia's desire to join NATO, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin first tried to bring the country to its knees through economic warfare beginning in 2005. He cut off access to Russian markets, expelled Georgians from Russia, quadrupled the price of Russian energy to Georgia, and severed transport links.

Georgia failed to collapse. To the contrary, it has flourished: After the Rose Revolution of 2003 ended the corrupt reign of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, Georgia instituted far-reaching reforms to its governing structures, cleaned up the endemic corruption that infected every facet of pre-Rose Revolution life, and found new markets for its products in Turkey and Europe. It persevered with some of the most profound and thorough economic and pro-business reforms ever undertaken by a developing country--slashing taxes and government regulations, and privatizing state-owned enterprises. All of which is reflected in Georgia's meteoric rise on the World Bank's Doing Business indicators. The irrelevance of Russian economic sanctions to Georgia made the ideological challenge that the Rose Revolution posed to Putin's vision of Russia even more profound.

Unable to bend Tbilisi to its will, the Kremlin in recent months ratcheted up the pressure and provocations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia--reinforcing Russian forces and Russian-backed paramilitaries, violating Georgian air space with Russian jets, shelling Georgian villages and outposts, and passing a resolution to treat the two provinces administratively as part of Russia. Starting in 2004, Russia began issuing passports to the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a fact that today serves as one of the main pretexts for the ferocity of Moscow's military campaign.

However, Georgia's "impertinence" in seeking NATO membership and building close ties with Europe does not fully explain Moscow's blatant display of brute power. In a speech before the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February last year, Mr. Putin made it clear that Russia would no longer accept the rules of the international road as set by the democratic West. It was an in-your-face challenge to the U.S. and Europe, and we blinked. With the exception of John McCain, who warned against "needless confrontation" on the part of Moscow, no American or European official at the conference made any attempt to push back. Ever since, Moscow's contempt for NATO, the European Union and Washington has only grown.

Reversing this course will not be easy, but it is absolutely necessary. At stake are international law, energy security, NATO's future, and American credibility when it comes to supporting new democracies. It is also about resisting Russia's openly hegemonic designs on its neighbors--including Ukraine, which Mr. Putin reportedly described as "not a real nation" to President Bush at their meeting in Sochi earlier this year.

What can the West do? The first step is for the U.S. and its allies to rush military and medical supplies to Tbilisi. If we want democracy to survive there, Georgians have to believe that we have their backs. At the moment, the tepidness of the Western response has given them serious cause for doubt. In addition, Washington should lead the effort to devise a list of economic and diplomatic sanctions toward Russia that impose real costs for what Moscow has done. Russia should know that the West has a greater capacity to sustain a new Cold War than Russia, with its petroleum-dependent economy, does.

Next, the West should make use of Russia's claim that its role in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is driven by the need to protect the populations there. If so, Moscow should have no objections to U.N.-sanctioned peacekeepers and observers moving into those two regions to replace the jerry-rigged system of "peacekeepers" that, until the war broke out, consisted of Russian troops, local separatist militaries and Georgian forces. If nothing else, the goal should be to put Mr. Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president, on their back foot diplomatically.

Over the longer term, it is essential that Russia's stranglehold on Europe's energy supplies be broken. The EU's failure to get its house in order by diversifying energy supplies and insisting that Russia, in turn, open up its own market, has created a situation in which Moscow rightly believes it has significant leverage over the policy positions of key countries such as Germany.

It was Germany that led the opposition at the most recent NATO summit in April against a Membership Action Plan for Georgia, emphasizing that a country that has unresolved conflicts should not be allowed to enter NATO. We presumably won't know for some time what the precise calculations were inside the Kremlin when it came to the decision to send troops into Georgia, but one can surely assume that the German position did nothing to discourage Russia's plans.

The real payback for Moscow's decision to invade Georgia should be the sweet revenge of a strong, prosperous and fully independent Georgia. Building on the strides Georgia has already made, Brussels and Washington should give Tbilisi a clear road to NATO and EU membership.

Mauro De Lorenzo is a resident fellow at AEI. Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar at AEI.

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