Georgia and Russia: the widening transatlantic gap (with 18 August update)

It's increasingly depressing to observe what appears to be a steadily widening gap between the reactions to the Georgia crisis in the US and those of liberal and other opinion in Europe, revealing fundamental differences of political philosophy and perception (please see some initial observations on the issues here and the comments appended to them). 

One shouldn't generalise about opinion in such a disparate country as the United States, but from watching and listening to even quite liberal commentators on (e.g.) CNN, in the New York Times (for example this), and various American pundits interviewed on UK television current affairs programmes, as well as the comments of Senators McCain and Obama, there seems to be an evolving consensus behind the belligerent President G W Bush and Condoleezza Rice.  By contrast much informed comment in the British media — including in the right-of-centre London Times, e.g. here, and by the conservative commentator Simon Jenkins here — takes a radically different view.

At the risk of over-simplifying complex issues, the two conflicting viewpoints are looking like this:

The principled idealists and tough guys:

"Georgia is an independent, sovereign state.  As such, it has an absolute right to form and join whatever international alliances it chooses, including NATO and the EU (if they will accept it).  It also has every right to resist bullying and interference from its big neighbour, Russia, which for centuries has sought to dominate it, as it has sought to dominate other smaller countries on Russia's borders.  It's not surprising or improper for Georgia to look westward  rather than eastward for support and friendship, given the rocky history of its relations with Russia.  Georgian membership of NATO would represent no military threat to Russia:  but it would serve as a useful warning to Russia of the possible consequences of continued Russian interference in Georgia's affairs. 

"The oil and gas pipelines passing through Georgia with supplies for the west that don't pass through Russia (and are therefore not potential instruments of Russian blackmail) are an important western interest justifying the west in supporting Georgia against the threat of Russian interference. 

"If Georgia had been admitted to NATO membership at the NATO meeting in Bucharest last April, as some of us proposed, it's unlikely that Russia would have dared to send its tanks and troops into Georgia itself on the flimsy pretext of protecting its own citizens in South Ossetia.  Many of these Russian "citizens" are anyway only nominally Russian because the Russians have handed out Russian passports to numerous South Ossetians.  South Ossetia is still legally part of Georgia and Russia has no business encouraging it to secede.

"Russia's policies and actions are a throw-back to by-gone Soviet days and have no place in the Europe of 2008.  Its military invasion of Georgia has no legal basis and constitutes clear aggression. It's important that the international community should not allow aggression to succeed:  a military response is ruled out as disproportionate and too dangerous, but Russia must be subjected to other penalties as a deterrent to any repetition of this unacceptable behaviour.  These could include postponement of Russian membership of the World Trade Organisation, suspension from the G8, a western boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and other kinds of boycott and isolation, until Moscow realises that aggression and other bullying do not pay." 

The alternative view may be summed up as that of — 

The realists with a sense of history:

All big and powerful countries inevitably use their power and influence to ensure that their vital national interests are not subverted or threatened by their smaller neighbours.  This is the essence of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 according to which the United States claims the right to prevent outside interference in the affairs of the western hemisphere — and even goes further than that:

Most recently, during the Cold War, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (added during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt) was invoked as a reason to intervene militarily in Latin America to stop the spread of Communism

American action against governments in Cuba and Grenada, Panama and Chile comes to mind.   A further implied extension to the Monroe Doctrine was represented as entitling the US to invade and occupy Iraq in defence of its own interests and allegedly in defence of the interests of the Iraqi people.   

The concept of a major power establishing a local sphere of influence and defending it, if necessary by force, against external incursion has a long history, and while not formally enshrined in international law, is simply a statement of how big powers inevitably behave in order to protect their security and advance their interests.  No country attaches more importance to preserving a cordon sanitaire as a defensive moat around itself than Russia, invariably and traditionally paranoid (for obvious reasons) about being attacked from the west.  The steady expansion of NATO and the EU in the direction of Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, has inevitably fed this paranoia, as has the proposed stationing of American Star Wars missile defences and missile sites in nearby Poland and the Czech Republic.  Other diplomatic rows over issues large and small have added to Russia's sense, not wholly illusory, of being under siege.  In the 1960s the stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba, just a few miles from the coast of Florida, caused a major global crisis and the Americans were prepared to take any steps to get them withdrawn;  we should not be surprised that the Russians feel much the same about their increasing encirclement by NATO and by western missiles and Star Wars installations.  The west's attempt to freeze Russia out of the Kosovo negotiations and participation in the internationalisation of that Serbian province in 1999, in an area where Russia has major and legitimate interests, was both misconceived and unsuccessful.  Now, with South Ossetia similarly seeking to secede from Georgia, the tables are turned.

In these circumstances Georgia's sudden abandonment of its peace proposals for ending small-scale violence in South Ossetia  (where Russian troops were already present in a peace-keeping role) and its launch of an extremely violent attack on the break-away province, which had been autonomous de facto from 1922 to the end of the USSR, was bound to be taken by the Russians as intolerably provocative, and as demanding a response.   It's not unreasonable, indeed, to suspect that Saakashvili launched his attack in the deliberate attempt to provoke a Russian military response which in turn would force the US, and perhaps the rest of NATO as such, to come to his assistance.  The consequences are plain to see.  Saakashvili was clearly in the wrong to attack South Ossetia just when peace talks were scheduled to begin;  Russia was equally or more wrong to over-react and to send its troops and tanks into Georgia proper, where they still are.  President Sarkozy, holding the EU Presidency, has negotiated a cease-fire which both sides have now signed, and the Russians will presumably honour it by withdrawing from Georgia in its own good time, but perhaps not while US "humanitarian aid" forces remain in the country.

If Georgia had been admitted to NATO earlier this year, the effect would almost certainly have been that Saakashvili would have been emboldened to launch his provocative assault on South Ossetia even earlier, in the confident belief that any Russian military response would have been met by NATO military support under the terms of NATO's North Atlantic Treaty.   Georgia's status as a NATO member would hardly have deterred Russia from responding as she did to the attack on South Ossetia since the risk of an all-out war between NATO and Russia would undoubtedly have given cooler NATO heads pause.  Failure to honour its treaty commitment to Georgia would have exposed NATO as a paper tiger and NATO membership as worthless, while Russia would have been correspondingly strengthened, much as has actually happened.

The western response to this unsavoury and dangerous episode should plainly be to engage Russia much more actively in international institutions and consultations:  further to isolate her (as the Americans seem determined to do) can only make matters worse.  There should be a halt to any further NATO or EU expansion into countries bordering Russia and an explicit acceptance of Russia's primary responsibility for maintaining order, resolving conflicts and settling disputes in her own back yard, provided that she acts exclusively in accordance with the rules set out in the UN Charter.   Given Russia's huge importance as a supplier of gas and oil, there's a strong western interest in encouraging full Russian participation in international affairs and in firmly discouraging Russian paranoia about western intentions towards her.  Russia is a major country — a legitimate nuclear power, a permanent member of the Security Council, the most important player in her own region, with significant military and economic resources.  She is entitled to be treated with more respect and attention than she has been accorded by much western policy in the last decade.  This is a matter of practical realism and self-interest for the west, not an occasion for moralistic finger-wagging from the west's glass house.


No prizes for guessing which camp I'm in.  Unfortunately it looks as if the two positions are irreconcilable.  The despatch of American troops to Georgia with a  mission to deliver humanitarian aid, while there are still Russian forces at various locations in the country, is hardly likely to help in cooling the temperature: there are plenty of other sources of humanitarian aid, eg through the Red Cross or the UN, without risking a confrontation in a semi-war situation and in a small country where law and order have broken down, between American and Russian troops at a time when their respective governments are engaged in a vitriolic slanging match.  There are surely less dangerous ways for Mr Bush to try belatedly to construct a legacy for himself in his remaining weeks in office.

Update (18 Aug 08):   Another Conservative but clear-eyed commentator, Sir Max Hastings, sets out in an article in today's Guardian, with penetrating and not unsympathetic insight into the Russian psyche, the irrefutable case for not accepting Georgia or Ukraine as members of NATO.  Writing in the Sunday Times of 17 August another usually perceptive Tory, Michael Portillo, arrives more reluctantly at the same conclusion, but only after a prolonged lament over the absence of Blair-like grand-standing in the form of the seizure of a hollow role for Britain in the Georgia crisis (the column is headed A world role for Britain slips away — thank goodness, some of us say;  and about time, too).  Meanwhile the gun-toting macho cold warriors demanding NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine are joined, not only by David Cameron after his visit to Tbilisi [see comments below], but even more ominously, and surprisingly, by the hitherto soberly realistic Angela Merkel after her own visit to the Georgian capital.  What is Saakashvili putting in his visitors' cabernet sauvignon?  Our own young Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is to be despatched by Gordon Brown to Tbilisi shortly:  let's hope that he at least will stick to bottled water.  As Hastings and others point out, if Georgia joins NATO and is then subjected to a further Russian invasion, perhaps provoked by a fresh act of folly by its madcap President, NATO will have to choose between honouring its NATO treaty commitment to go to war with Russia in Georgia's defence, or doing nothing, thereby exposing NATO's pledge of mutual military support as worthless.  The Guardian's front page lead today points up the humour implicit in the western position with its splendid headline:  Russia warned: withdraw from Georgia, or else (or else what?). 


8 Responses

  1. Patrick says:


    Thanks for this catalogue of opinion.  General Sir Mike Jackson has written a useful article in today's Sunday Telegraph. 

    Brian writes:  Thanks for that link, Patrick.  Excellent article by the General, I agree.  He must have been reading this blog [no, I'm not serious].  I hope someone will show it to David Cameron, whose comments on the Georgia-Russia situation (as reported in today's Observer) suggest that he's stuck in a cold war time-warp, out-Bushing Bush — a worrying augury for the time when he becomes prime minister, as now seems likely.   Also in the Observer is a splendidly informative and level-headed article by the always reliable Neal Ascherson, which should be obligatory reading for everyone interested in this region.   The same newspaper's main editorial on the subject has a blush-making heading ("Controlling the new Russia requires new thinking":  'controlling' Russia?) suggestive of the worst kind of misconceived, impertinent finger-wagging, followed by a series of arrogant instructions to international leaders (the word 'must' appears four times in the first two sentences — who do these leader-writers think they are?), but it contrives to finish on a reasonably moderate and sensible note.  

  2. Ian Christie says:

    Admitting Georgia to Nato would be crass.  There is nothing the west could do to support or protect Georgia short of the threat of a nuclear strike.

    Have the western leaders forgotten that Georgia was part of the Tsar's empire, and of the USSR, and that Stalin was a Georgian, (and for good measure Khrushchev a Ukrainian)?

    Since the war Finland has kept its independence arguably by treating its large and powerful neighbour respectfully.  It got away with joining the EU, and adopting the Euro, but has never to my knowledge thought of joining NATO.  What a pity that today's Georgian leaders have not been equally discreet. 

    Brian writes:  You make a very good point about Finland's skill in living next door to the big bear and preserving its freedom and independence while being careful not to provoke the bear unnecessarily.  Others could and should learn from this example. 

  3. Malcolm McBain says:

    I am strongly inclined to agree with you. The Mike Jackson article is also excellent, even though  to be found in the Sunday Telegraph.  But did you read some of the comments  on  his piece  by bloggers?  Blimey!  I think you have to be tolerant of UK politicians since they have to win votes from the British public.  

  4. Clive Willis says:

    I'm fully in agreement with you. Saakashvili is a dreadfully loose cannon. What worries me on the wider scale (notwithstanding the troubles undergone and to be undergone by the Georgian people of whatever persuasion) is (i) the future of the oil and gas pipelines that run through southern Georgia, and (ii) Western attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO. Cameron has revealed already his lack of experience by shooting immaturely from the hip.

    Perhaps Miliband can wrest some benefit and produce a more balanced approach, but he'll need far better advice than Cameron, Merkel and Bush/Rice have been getting. Perhaps the FCO still has wiser heads left in its ranks. I commend Ivor Roberts's article in the current issue of The Tablet. It chimes harmoniously with your own position, Brian, notably in respect of Kosovo.



    Brian writes:  Thanks, Clive.  Unfortunately one needs to subscribe to The Tablet to read Sir Ivor Roberts's article even online, but his experience as a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia entitles his views on Kosovo to considerable respect — especially as they largely, I know, coincide with mine! 

  5. writeon says:

    I’ve learned from four different sources, two public, and two private, that the Russians took at least two batteries of rockets into South Ossetia, rockets  that  may/were armed with nuclear warheads.  Not only this, they informed the Americans that if the United States opposed or attacked the Russian armour with precision-guided weapons the Russians would escalate and reply using tactical nuclear weapons. Not only this, the commanders on the ground had already be given permission to go nuclear if for some reason Moscow command centre was "out of order".

    Now, this all might just be a story, however, it might not. It might be people in the Pentagon or CIA or the State Department, want this information in the public domaine to wake people up to the dangerous nature of the "Great Game" we are playing.

  6. Clive Willis says:

    I've just witnessed Miliband's cocky performance on Newsnight and am appalled that he's talking up the Bush/Rice line on Georgia still becoming a NATO member (and therefore Ukraine as well, we may assume). It seems to me that the FCO is either not giving the sound advice that the Robertses and Barders would once have given or that there is some subtle future pathway the direction of which remains a complete mystery to me. I found no significant practical difference between Miliband's approach and that of Cameron. Sigh!


    PS  I'll send you Sir Ivor's article – there will be no 'suspicious' religious baggage therewith!  C.

    Brian writes:  I suppose that in answer to a straight question Miliband is bound to take the official NATO line, i.e. that in principle Georgia will join NATO in due course.  But I thought he was evasive on the timing and anxious to stress that the current issues concerned the practical help that the west could give Georgia by way of reconstruction and humanitarian aid.  Or was this just wishful thinking on my part? 

  7. Oliver Miles says:

    As a member of the realist camp I am getting thoroughly confused about who is with me and who is against me. It seems clear that Bush, Rice, Brown (Gordon) and Miliband are against me. But not all Americans of course; my liberal friends keep sending me things like this:

    What are we to make of Nick Brown, deputy chief whip for goodness' sake, saying at, amid a lot of embarrassing Eatanswill jocularity, that he doesn't know anybody who favours admitting Georgia to NATO, that the Georgian actions in South Ossetia were pretty close to ethnic cleansing, and that one-sided condemnation of Russia indicates a failure to understand the historical context. Finally Private Eye, which seems to be against me, praises David Cameron for going to Tbilisi and pressing the flesh, but compares William Hague with Chamberlain for saying that both Russia and Georgia should stop fighting, and says that Malcolm Rifkind causes "particular alarm" among Eastern Europeans by arguing that Ukraine and Georgia should not be offered membership of NATO. I was taught at school that the advantage of the two-party system was that it spared us this kind of confusion.

    Brian writes:  I'm not so much confused (although that too) as bemused by the apparent inability of serious political figures and some commentators to recognise the realities in all this.  Nick Brown, by the way, is said to be close to Gordon Brown (no relation) as well as being Labour's deputy chief whip:  is this Gordon's crafty revenge on Miliband for that allegedly treacherous Guardian article? 

  8. John Miles says:

    I don't know enough about all this offer any serious criticism of what you say, but it looks to me like reasonably good sense.

    Something I find dreadfully depressing is that not even one of the protagonists in this episode, or their critics or supporters, seems to emerge with any credit whatsoever.

    Or have I missed something? 

    Brian writes:  No, I don't think you have missed anything (you rarely seem to!).  Virtually everybody concerned has behaved abominably.  Situation normal.  (I suppose we should exempt the unfortunate South Ossetians, though.) 

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