Lessons From Russia's 'Little War'

Published: February 1, 2010

PARIS — There’s a good new book out on Russia’s invasion of Georgia called “A Little War That Shook the World.”

It might well have been more naggingly and intriguingly titled “A Little War That Should Have Shaken the World but Didn’t,” a formulation which comes closer to reality.

Still, Ronald D. Asmus, the author, makes a similar point himself: He insisted at a panel discussion of his book here last week that the Russians’ assault on Georgia in August 2008 has been largely swept under the rug by the United States, NATO and the European Union.

Russian regrets? Moscow has little reason to have them so far, getting away with armed aggression meant to dissuade what Mr. Asmus described as “neighboring countries from getting too close to the West.”

For diplomatic caution’s sake, Mr. Asmus, a former State Department official in the administration of President Bill Clinton, and now executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, holds out the possibility that having sent 40,000 troops into Georgia may eventually boomerang against Russia’s interests.

But it’s hard to see how. At its most significant, the invasion had the double characteristic of Russia maximizing its capacity to exercise a veto over the West’s security interests, while the West, divided and without clear leadership, sought to minimize the obvious importance of the event.

Mr. Asmus’s book offers the details. And clarity: “A close partner of the United States and a candidate country for NATO was invaded, and neither Washington nor the Atlantic Alliance did much to come to its assistance.”

Add to that the still incomplete withdrawal of Russian invasion troops, the declarations of “independence” (or de facto Russian annexation) of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the assertions by President Dmitri A. Medvedev, immediately following the war, enunciating a doctrine of privileged Russian interests in the countries along Russia’s frontiers.

By Mr. Asmus’s account, here are the little war’s bottom lines: Russia trashed the basic post-Cold War rule that borders in Europe would never again be changed by force; and, after taking aim “not only at Georgia, but at Washington, NATO and the West,” it asserted it is prepared to use force again against its neighbors.

Those conclusions are confined to Russia. But the book’s evidence documenting the Atlantic Alliance’s feebleness and feuding in the face of Russia’s threats against Georgia would seem to serve as massive encouragement to any group or country — Al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea — thinking the West’s rivalries can make it compliant.

Along this line, the book’s most striking reporting involves the April 2008 NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, to which Vladimir V. Putin was invited as a kind of guest heavy, after having been told by the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, that there would be serious consequences if Russia intervened militarily in Georgia. (Hah!)

Against what Mr. Asmus calls German-led opposition, the administration of President George W. Bush failed to win a Membership Action Plan (MAP), or official status as a NATO candidate, for Georgia or Ukraine, an even more difficult postulant.

In this process, he describes President Nicolas Sarkozy as telling Americans that he was not afraid to offend Russia on the issue, but that he did not want to pick a fight with the Germany of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That left the United States and Germany, in Mr. Asmus’s words, splitting into “opposing, feuding” camps. He explains that a “pro-Russian lobby” had been legitimized during the Iraq war in Berlin, which made its relationship with Russia more important for many Germans than NATO membership for potentially democratic countries (and potential irritants to Russia) like Georgia and Ukraine.

Mrs. Merkel held fast, co-opting France and basically heading off official MAP designations for the two applicants. In the end, Mr. Bush had backed down, a portentous novelty for America on NATO turf.

Mr. Putin must have taken note in red ink. In terms of his view of Russia’s self-interest, NATO’s wobble was an invitation to a short, effective war whose memory the West has done its best to suppress.

The rest of the story goes largely in his direction.

As a Russian-Georgian cease-fire was being brokered by France (without any reference to Georgia’s territorial integrity), there were mumbles about sanctions within the E.U. But nothing transpired except a postponement of meetings on an E.U.-Russia strategic partnership, which resumed three months later.

NATO hardly appeared more stern. Mr. Asmus was understating reality when he wrote, “Many in the West tried to step back and pretend that the Russo-Georgian war was a local conflict they were not a party to.”

Ongoing events continue to prove him right.

Last year, in a new burst of assertiveness, the Russian National Security Council announced that it would widen the armed forces’ preventive use of nuclear weapons beyond big wars to include regional and local conflicts where the conventionally armed “aggressors” would presumably resemble countries like Georgia.

This followed a French decision to enter negotiations with the Russian Navy on selling it modern helicopter-carrying assault vessels that a Russian admiral said would have shortened his Georgian operations from hours to minutes.

Yet the Georgian connection doesn’t seem to hang over the possible sale. When the panel discussion here last week about Mr. Asmus’s book got around to the ships’ implications, Jean-David Levitte, Mr. Sarkozy’s national security adviser, responded that the Russian armed forces could reach all their “near abroad” neighbors by land.

In Germany, just before Christmas, an interministerial committee approved a €2.77 billion, or $3.85 billion, loan guarantee for the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, tripling its cash backing for a Russian-German venture that has been attacked as creating a European dependency on Russia as its prime energy supplier.

As for the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Paris last Friday, still pressing the Russian reset button but calling on Russia in a wider speech on European security to honor the terms of its cease-fire agreement with Georgia, rejecting the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, objecting to the idea of spheres of influence and reiterating that NATO membership is open to all qualified countries.

On the evidence, and with great good will, that’s an enormous agenda with only trace amounts a year and a half after Russia’s invasion of any coherent follow-through.

Mr. Asmus’s lucid book on the little 2008 war in Georgia is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com.

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