With today's announcement of an end to Russia's "peace enforcement operation" in South Ossetia, President Dmitry Medvedev has (just about) rescued Russia's reputation and brought the world back from the brink of unthinkable geopolitical disaster. But it was a close call, and could yet be reversed.
Roland Oliphant for RIA Novosti - The fighting did not end before entering a dangerous new stage. Yesterday, Russian peacekeepers moved inside Georgia proper when they took control of Georgia's largest airbase at Senaki, about 40km from the border with Abkhazia. They have since withdrawn, but in the meantime the Georgians claimed that Russian troops had also entered the city of Poti (denied by Moscow), and announced they were withdrawing their troops from other areas to defend Tbilisi. For a while it looked like a full-scale invasion of Georgia was about to be unleashed.
That was bad. Whether or not you took the Georgian claims off an imminent attack on Tbilisi seriously (they now seem to have been ill founded), it represented a serious escalation of the conflict, and suggested that Russia was willing to take full advantage of its military superiority to force more than simply a ceasefire with Georgia.
Their overwhelming military superiority, the fact that Georgia initiated the war, and most of all the West's reluctance to help its so-called "ally," gave the Russians a blank check in the Caucasus. Until yesterday, most commentators had assumed that talks would resume once Russia had won itself a sufficiently strong negotiating position - meaning a few days more fighting at most. The move from South Ossetia into Georgian territory - however brief it turned out to be - momentarily raised the ugly prospect of that "strong negotiating position" being the occupation of all of Georgia.
Militarily it is well within Russia's means to completely destroy the Georgian forces and occupy the country, and that is a temptation that Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and their generals must have been struggling with. It would once and for all re-establish Russia's might (especially in the Caucuses), humiliate NATO, and probably be the end of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who has been a constant irritant to the Kremlin since he came to power in 2004. They could even install a pro-Russian regime. And no one, it seemed, was going to stop them.
That last step would have been particularly rash. As Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia's own horrendous experience in Chechnya have shown, fighting an insurgency is very different to fighting a war. If the Russians were to give into temptation, roll their tanks into Tbilisi and put Saakashvili on trial for war crimes (as they have demanded he should be), they could well find themselves stuck in a very nasty quagmire indeed. It would certainly be the end of any sympathy from those foreign observers who acknowledge that Georgia started the war.
More than that, it would have given terrifying credence to Saakashvili's claims that this was aggression on a par with the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. It would have roused very bad memories across Eastern Europe, and any wavering on the part of Poland and the Czech Republic about hosting the American missile defense shield would have disappeared over night. NATO, indeed, would suddenly rediscover its reason for being. It has not yet gone that far, and, with Medvedev's announcement, it does not look like it will. But the situation is delicate, and it is no exaggeration to say that over the past few days we came very close indeed to the new cold war that so many journalists and politicians, in both Russia and the West, have played up for so long.
That was obviously not in anyone's interests - but that does not mean it could not have happened. Indeed, it still could. The more blindly patriotic Russian commentators are right that Russia had to respond to the Georgian attack, even if they overlook Russia's own record of wilful provocation in the region. But they are wrong that Russia is a grievously injured party, and deluded to assume that Russia would not - or could not - go from legitimate "peace enforcer" to aggressor. It could easily have done, and for about 24 hours from the time the peacekeepers seized the airbase at Senaki, no one was sure if they would or not. Probably not even the Russian leadership.
Medvedev's order to disengage therefore deserves immense credit. It not only stopped the bloodshed, but it came just in time to pull Russia, the Caucasus and all of Europe back from unthinkable geopolitical disaster.
It may have come too late to stop the backlash in Europe, however. The Baltic States yesterday issued a joint statement expressing their concern as "former prisoner states." They might be the usual suspects when it comes to Russia bashing, but theirs is only the strongest of a deep-seated antipathy to Russia shared by countries across former communist Europe. The bitter memories of '56, '68 and, in Poland, betrayals and occupations going back to 1939 are still fresh. (Russians will tell you bad blood with the Polish actually goes back much further, and is far from one sided. They have a point, but it doesn't change the reality of the sentiments.) In many countries these events are matters of national pride and identity. And few in, say, Hungary, would have had much time for distinctions between Russia and the Soviet Union if the former had sent tanks into Tbilisi. Russian officials have long complained that countries like Poland and Lithuania hold EU policy hostage to selfish interests and prejudice. They should not underestimate the depth of anti-Russian sentiment that has yet to be tapped.
But it is not only "new" Europe Russia had to worry about. The longer the conflict went on, and the further Russian forces advanced into Georgia proper, the more difficult it became for traditional Russian allies like France and Germany to give the Kremlin the benefit of the doubt. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, met with Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow today. Prior to the meeting word had it that he would have harsh words for his Russian counter part.
To understand how significant that is, recall that Vladimir Putin's first trip as Prime Minister was to France, where by all accounts he and Sarkozy got on like a house on fire. That was just a few months ago.
In Germany, Russia's single biggest trading partner and the driving force behind the Nord Stream gas pipeline that has so infuriated Poland and the Baltic States, the reaction has so far been more nuanced. Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats have tended to blame Russia, but Social Democrats and Greens have been more critical of Georgia. That position would have become increasingly untenable if the "peace keeping" action had begun to look like an invasion of Georgia.
It is true that European leaders can be a spineless, internecine and self-interested bunch, and Russia has proved adept at exploiting these qualities (though should not be blamed for them. That there is about as much consensus in Brussels on Russia as there is on the common agricultural policy is symptomatic of the EU). Even when Russia shut off gas supplies to the Ukraine, perhaps the most painful thing it could do to Europe short of an act of war, it couldn't provoke meaningful European solidarity. Hence Nord Stream, which Poland and the Baltic states complain by passes them, and will allow Russia to shut off their gas without hurting West European consumers.
This time may be different, but with a record like that the Russian leadership, especially Putin, who has long experience of dealing with Europe, had good reason to doubt the seriousness of any European response if they were to annexe Georgia. That left them very little incentive for restraint.
But it would still have been a mistake, as seems to have been realised. Russia has invested a great deal of effort convincing the west that NATO and other relics of "Cold War thinking" are outdated. One of Dmitry Medvedev's few foreign policy initiatives is a new security regime for Europe and Asia that would transcend cold war era divides. Moscow is (or was) meant to host an international conference on the subject next year.
With a blank checkbook in front of him and a pen in his hand, President Medvedev (or Prime Minister Putin) now has an opportunity to demonstrate just how outdated that Cold War thinking is. The next step is to keep their patience. Declaring a ceasefire (now that the Georgians have obviously been defeated) and withdrawing Russian peacekeeping forces to South Ossetia goes a long way to vindicating their arguments. Rolling on into Georgia, on the other hand, would likely have convinced many that NATO should get out of Afghanistan, and back to its old job - deterring Russian aggression. - 0 -
The opinions in the this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RIA Novosti