The guns of August: non-event with consequences

The political fallout of the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 affects far more than the main combatants.

This piece was first published in Open Democracy on 30 July 2009.

It took less than a hundred days for the Russia-Georgia war of 8-12 August 2008 to be eclipsed as a history-shaping event. The guns of August were silenced by the thunders on Wall Street. A war that seemed momentous at the time became subject to instant amnesia: a non-event. But it was a non-event with consequences.

A year on, a measure of these consequences seems appropriate. The post-war balance-sheets of the leading actors – Georgia and Russia themselves, but also the United States and the European Union – in many respects resemble those of the Wall Street financial institutions hit by the global economic crisis: undeclared losses and inflated profits.

Indeed, amid the fallout of this toxic conflict it is easier to see losers than victors. In August 2008, Georgia lost its dreams, the Kremlin lost its complexes, Washington lost its nerves and the European Union lost its sleep. But as the poet said, there's no success like failure; and the messy aftermath also reveals collateral benefits for some of these and other powers.

Russia is at the centre of every calculation. The war was the occasion of Moscow's first large-scale military operation outside the territory of the Russian Federation since the end of the cold war. The Kremlin's subsequent recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was the first revision of inter-state borders on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Russia emerged from the war as a revisionist power and broke the illusion of the existence of European order. The Russian analyst Sergei Markedonov is right to assert that August 2008 was also a “final reloading of conflicts in Eurasia.”

This assessment of the war's outcome examines the role of all the main players, and looks at the war's implications for the future of European order.

A Georgian balance-sheet

Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president, made a strategic miscalculation in deciding to launch a rocket assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. He gambled and he lost. Georgia lost too. It lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for at the end of the war these already detached satellites were further than ever from its grasp. It lost its military infrastructure and the hope for rapid economic development. Georgia's strategic ambition to be an Israel in the Caucuses turned into a nightmare.

At the same time, Saakashvili survived the defeat and has managed – despite intense domestic political criticism – to remain in power. Georgia under his leadership has also adapted to its defeat by turning itself in 2008-09 from America's client into the European Union's project. This is Tbilisi's strategic gain.

A Washington balance-sheet

The United States made a strategic mistake in the early months of 2008 by ignoring the signals that its ally in Tbilisi was moving towards a military option with respect to the breakaway territories. George W Bush's White House failed to grasp the real intentions of Mikheil Saakashvili's government, and it equally misjudged Moscow's readiness to use force against Georgia. As a result, US power suffered a major crisis of credibility. Washington paid the price for its strategic overstretch and for its obsession with symbolic politics.

The outcome was devastating. The five days of the Russia-Georgia conflict demonstrated that the Washington did not have leverage over Moscow, and that Bush's commitment to guarantee the territorial integrity of Georgia was mere rhetoric. In the end, Nato's generals were not ready to send Nato soldiers to die in defence of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin.

All this increased the polarisation within the American foreign-policy community, deepening the confrontation between “realists” and “moralists”.

The arrival of the Barack Obama administration in January 2009 has signalled change in the US's policy towards Russia. At the heart of the proclaimed “reset strategy” is Washington's willingness to focus on improving relations with Moscow by cooperating on global issues such as the reduction of nuclear arsenals and the containment of Iran's nuclear ambitions while leaving EU in charge of managing the tensions in the post-Soviet space.

The new reality is that the US is no longer a European power in the way it was during the cold war or in the 1990s.

A Russian balance-sheet

In military terms, Russia won the August 2008 war (though the success was partially spoiled by the malfunctioning of the Russian armed forces). It strengthened the legitimacy of the Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev regime; it was popular with the Russian public and – especially for many Russians who still live with the traumas of the 1990s – this “small victorious war” was a welcome reversal of almost two decades of humiliation. The domestic opinion-polls found that even teenage street-kids regarded Georgia and the United States as Russia's major enemies. More widely, in the wake of the war the prospect of Georgia or Ukraine joining Nato in the next decade has been almost extinguished.

At the same time Russia's strong military response brought in its wake strategic losses. The war did not make the Caucasus more secure. The recognition by Russia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent entities (in which it has been joined by Nicaragua alone) increases the risks of instability in the region. The growing number of political assassinations in places like Ingushetia demonstrates the growing ungovernability of the region. The Russian analyst Nikolai Petrov argues that Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's president, is already promoting an “Abkhaz” status for Chechnya.

The Kremlin's revisionism was rebuked too by other post-Soviet states. The day after it recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia found itself in a position of total diplomatic isolation.

This is an indication that in another of history's twists, Russia strategically could lose more out of its victory in Georgia then it lost from its defeat during the period of the “colour revolutions” in 2003-05. At that time, Russia lost both prestige and position in Georgia and Ukraine; but it responded by finding common cause with the autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet space, and this increased its leverage over some parts of the region (see “Russia's post-orange empire”, 20 October 2005).

This, however, carries a cost: now that Russia has more clearly become a revisionist power, feared and resisted by its neighbours, its stance and rhetoric (including the claim of interest in protecting the rights of its compatriots in the post-Soviet states) has profoundly changed the way Russian minorities are perceived in the “near abroad”.

The Kremlin recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with the clearly stated purpose to “break the west's monopoly on double standards.” The act was meant as a demonstration of strength – a direct response to the west's recognition of the independence of Kosovo in February 2008 – but it turned out to be a demonstration of weakness. The real difference between the “Kosovo case” and the “South Ossetia case” is that Serbia, even after being bombed by Nato and (in its view illegally) deprived of Kosovo, still sees its future as a part of Nato and the European Union – not as their enemy.

The contrast with Georgia is total: the only future Georgia can dream about is as far as possible from Russia's sphere of influence.

Barack Obama's arrival in the White House touches everything, and his fresh foreign-policy approach has also reduced Russia's attractiveness as the leader of transnational anti-American resistance. Now that the multi-polar world has arrived, Russia has much more to fear than to celebrate. The global financial crisis, reinforcing the existing squeeze on energy prices and revenues, adds a further layer of concern by weakening Russia's economy and investment attractiveness. In 2008-09, the BRIC network (Brazil, Russia, India, China) has been transformed into BIC-plus-Russia. The crisis has consolidated the global position and prospects of China, India and Brazil; but it has raised even more doubts about the long-term perspective of Russia as a global power.

A European Union balance-sheet

The European Union's credit-rating increased in the aftermath of the Georgia-Russia war, in part because of its active diplomatic engagement in bringing the initial military confrontation to an end. The union managed to preserve its coherence in an explosive situation, built on its brokering of the peace, and out of the war established a more active and visible presence in the Caucasus and in the post-Soviet space in general. For example, the offer by the EU of the Eastern Partnership to six post-Soviet countries was in many aspects a direct response to the war.

But the EU's increase of responsibility in relation to the Caucasus also carries a major risk, for at present the union lacks both a working strategy and public support for deeper involvement in the region. Any belief in Brussels or the member-states that the EU can simply repeat its Balkan strategy is an illusion. Georgia's insistence that the United States should be part of the EU monitoring mission in a radical form will press Brussels to make a critical choice: to “do Georgia on its own”, thus reducing the tensions with Russia, or to go for a transatlantic strategy for the Caucasus.

The real winners

China and Turkey have, at least for the moment, turned out to be the only clear winners of the Russia-Georgia war. China used the war to converge its economic leverage into political influence in the post-Soviet space. It was China that de facto encouraged the post-Soviet republics to resist Russia's pressures for recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The combination of the war and the global economic crisis has transformed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) from a Moscow-dominated into a Beijing-dominated grouping.

Turkey emerged from the war as an autonomous regional power that has the will, capacity and legitimacy to mediate in almost all of the conflicts in the region. The unfreezing of Turkey-Armenia relations is one of the war's positive side-effects.

It is important to stress that Ankara's “soft power” – in contrast to Moscow's version – is built not on resisting the west but by Turkey's success in adopting the western model while preserving its political character and defending its sovereignty and national interests. In its regional policy Turkey is skilfully deploying its many identities – Muslim democracy, secular Muslim republic, European Union candidate country, United States strategic partner – but also acting as an independent-minded power able and willing to defend a position of its own.

The dilemmas of state-building

The Russia-Georgia war demonstrated that the key to Europe's security is to grasp the logics of the complex and diverse processes of state-building, which simultaneously are taking place all over Eurasia.

Europe in and since the 1990s has been in this context reminiscent of Africa in the 1960s. The continent has become the biggest state-construction site in the world. In the same period, Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus struggled to build sovereign nation-states; the European Union tried to build its own postmodern empire; Russia is still in the process of constructing the first non-imperial state in its history. All these state-building exercises are highly risky, and setbacks are unavoidable. They have different logics and a series of unintended consequences.

What happened in the 2000s, almost everywhere in the region, is that the elites in the post-Soviet republics shifted from Moscow's reluctant clients or passionate opponents to Tito-minded pragmatists who cleverly use the competitive tensions between Russia and the west to entrench their own state-building projects and maximise their own power.

The diverse logics of these state projects under construction gave birth to three different views on sovereignty. First, the smaller post-Soviet republics tend to view sovereignty in legal terms; they emphasise the equality of citizens-nations in the global society. Second, Russia tends to view sovereignty not as a legal fiction but as problem of capacity; this assumes military power, the national economy and cultural identity (implying that “great powers” alone are eligible for sovereignty). Third, the European Union views sovereignty as “a seat at the table”, a political arrival into an established community of shared interest. The contrasts in these notions of sovereignty are a key to understanding many of the misperceptions in the politics of the Eurasian region.

These logics are in turn embodied in the threefold contradictions that lie at the heart of current European instability: a proliferation of weak and dysfunctional states; the fact that Russia views control of the region as a precondition for its security; the fact that the elites in the post-Soviet states see anti-Russian sentiments and policies as the major resource for their state-building projects.

The sources of Russia's revisionism

Russia's unashamed affirmation as a revisionist power is the most important outcome of the August 2008 war. Russia's revisionism is a reality but it is not the embodiment of Moscow's resurgence and imperial ambition. The Kremlin's revisionism is the outcome of Moscow's growing insecurity. It is at exactly the point when the Kremlin sought to reclaim Moscow's global role that Russia discovered its vulnerability (see “Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap”, 19 August 2009).

The Russia of Vladimir Putin fears at the same time territorial disintegration and the loss of global relevance. Both of these fears are legitimate. The problem is that Russia is unwilling or unable to express them in its dialogue with the west because in the Kremlin's view a discourse of fear can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. The ultimate objective of the Kremlin's current foreign policy is that if it cannot be strong, Russia should not look weak. In Vladimir Putin's words: “Russia will either be a great power or it will not be at all”.

Three sources of Russia's insecurity are of fundamental importance.

First, Putin's Russia, like Stalin's Soviet Union and imperial Russia, is obsessed with a search for defensible borders. The huge nuclear arsenal gave Russia the status of a great power, but it did not give it security.

Second, insecurity is also a defining characteristic of the Putin generation and is essential to understanding the Kremlin's actions. Putin's generation is shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is an almost mystical sense of insecurity injected into the current Russia's elite that saw the collapse of a world “that was forever until it was not anymore.” Putin's elite is almost irrational in its search for absolute security.

Third, Moscow is deeply suspicious of the nature of the current world order based on growing economic and political interdependency. It is this profound sense of insecurity – shared both by the society and the elites – that shapes Russia's worldview.

The sources of EU ambiguity

The European Union's problem is not insecurity but ambiguity: ambiguity about its own role in the world and about the future of the model it represents. Now, when the EU as the result of the Russia-Georgia war has become a Caucasian power, it is vital to clarify the EU's dilemmas. The union is torn between the imperative to stay open for new members (this is the essence of its soft power); political pressure to define the “final borders of Europe”; and closing the door (this is the will of the majority of its citizens). The EU is caught in a further historical twist, where the success of its enlargement meets its publics' reluctance to recognise and celebrate this success.

The Greek diplomat and policy-analyst Alex Rondos brilliantly captures the EU's dilemma in observing that the difference between America and Europe is the difference between the missionary who travels around the world converting people to his faith and the nun who wants to bring the world into her monastery. America will not be America without its missionary zeal, but the EU will lose its identity when it closes the doors of the monastery to strangers.

The other source of the EU's ambiguity is the changing nature of the geopolitical context. Despite the fact that in recent years Europe was one of the sharpest critics of America's uni-polar world, in reality America's world was quite hospitable to the European project and the EU was the major beneficiary of America's uni-polarity. It was due to America's global hegemony that the EU emerged onto the world stage as a superpower. It was America's security umbrella that allowed EU to become a global power without the need to become a real military power.

Now all this is going to change. The world as we knew it has vanished. American hegemony is over and Europe is going to face a new and less hospitable world. In the new post-American world, the international stage will be dominated most probably by 19th-century-minded traditional powers that fundamentally differ in their assumptions from the Brussels consensus. The return of a 19th-century view of the world makes the EU a reluctant global player and makes its ambiguity about the world and its own global role even more dramatic.

After the funerals

In assessing the consequences of the Russia-Georgia war the real question is: does the post-August 2008 world giving us a better chance for negotiating a legitimate and just European order, or is it making such an order even less likely?

Two answers are possible: the desperately pessimistic or the moderately optimistic.

Pessimists will claim that by turning the Russia-Georgia war into a non-event the west has encouraged the Kremlin to repeat its “success” in other parts of the post-Soviet space – thus making European order an illusion.

Optimists tend to believe that the Russia-Georgia war marks the simultaneous failure of two projects: Russia's for reviving the sphere-of-influence politics in Europe, and the west's for constructing Europe without Russia.

If the pessimists are right, these are the early stages of a long night. If the optimists are correct, the death of these two projects means that now is a proper time to start thinking about the gestation of a third.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Studies and an ECFR board member.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Chairman, Centre for Liberal Strategies

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