The Kosovo-Georgia connection
In writing about Kosovo and Georgia, I am handicapped by having no first-hand experience of the area, apart from having served in Moscow in the early 1970s, including a brief visit to Georgia during that time. So it’s reassuring to find that someone with perhaps more extensive first-hand knowledge of the Balkans than almost any other UK commentator has written an analysis which closely mirrors my own (also e.g. here and here). Sir Ivor Roberts was appointed Chargé d’Affaires and Consul-General in Belgrade in March 1994, and after recognition of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by the United Kingdom, became Ambassador. During his time in Belgrade he conducted negotiations on behalf of the international mediators (Lord Owen and Carl Bildt) with both the Yugoslav authorities and the Bosnian Serbs. He was also involved in the negotiations for the release of British soldiers held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs in May/June 1995. He left Belgrade at the end of 1997, barely two years before NATO started to bomb it. From January 1998 to February 1999 he was on a sabbatical as a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, writing and lecturing on his experiences in Yugoslavia. He served subsequently as British ambassador to Ireland and then Italy. He retired from the Diplomatic Service in September 2006 on his election as the President (Master) of Trinity College, Oxford, his current appointment.
Sir Ivor has written quite extensively about Kosovo, most recently in an article in The Tablet in which he traces the origins of the current Georgia-Russia conflict directly to western misjudgements over Kosovo. You can read extensive extracts from his article here. I urge you to do so. You can read the full text online if you are a subscriber to The Tablet, or in hard copy if you buy it.
Not only did western mishandling of the Kosovo problem (and the misconception that western military intervention against Yugoslavia over Kosovo had been a success) encourage further and even more disastrous blundering in Iraq: it has also had seriously negative consequences for the west’s relations with Russia and for Russian perceptions of western intentions — consequences that we see now in Georgia and in western impotence in the face of that challenge. It’s too late to undo those Kosovo mistakes now, but it’s not too late to begin to recognise them as mistakes and to try to learn some lessons from them in our future approach to Georgia (and Ukraine) in relation to Russia. For US, UK and some other western leaders to go on about Russia’s “unacceptable” behaviour in Georgia and to reject any suggestion that Russia, like any other powerful state, will seek to insist that its smaller neighbours pay regard to Russian interests, simply compounds past mistakes instead of facing reality. Not only Georgian but also Ukrainian leaders, and policy makers in Washington and London, would do well to study the history of Finland’s sensitive handling of its relations with Russia — as well as Ivor Roberts’s shrewd analysis of where we, or they, have gone so badly wrong.
 Of course recent Russian behaviour in Georgia has been disgraceful, brutal and disproportionate, and deserves to be condemned. But it’s as well to remember that even before the recent conflict Russia had military forces stationed legally in Georgia under an earlier agreement with the Georgian government; and that in numerous ways, geographically, culturally, historically and ethnically, Georgia is indelibly written into Russia’s DNA (as indeed is Ukraine). To understand how Russians react to western bluster about Georgia’s inalienable right to join NATO in complete disregard of Russian objections, it’s only necessary to consider how any American administration would have reacted if the Russians had recruited Cuba — or Mexico — as a member of the Warsaw Pact: and indeed how the US did react when the Soviet Union started to station missiles in Cuba. For George W. Bush of all people to berate Russia for ‘invading’ the sovereign territory of independent Georgia, after his own record in Iraq, requires a certain chutzpah. And to say, as Bush has said, that the days of “spheres of influence” are over is cloud cuckoo land. Every big and powerful state, including throughout most of its history the United States, seeks to ensure that its neighbours pay due regard to its vital interests and are not allowed to fall under the control of its foreign adversaries or potential enemies. Add to that Russia’s built-in paranoia about the need to protect itself against the threat of western attack, and you can’t easily mistake Russian actions in its ‘near abroad‘ for simple aggression. Like the man said, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.