More thoughts on South Ossetia

August 27, 2008
Well, the big story here is of course Russia's recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On Russian state television, the decision is being presented quite clearly as a response to the recognition of Kosovo's independence earlier this year by the United States and the European Union. Indeed, an extended excerpt of a speech by Vladimir Putin in Germany last June in reaction to the recognition of Kosovo's independence was shown on the news tonight. I'd never seen it, but in it he clearly says that if such rules apply to Kosovo, then they can apply to countries all over the world.

Indeed, Russia's recognition today marks a reversal of a policy Russia had followed since the end of the Cold War, in which Moscow steadfastly insisted upon the principle of territorial integrity while the United States and the European Union recognized the independence of one state after another in the Balkans. While Russian support for Belgrade was often presented in the Western media in terms of some kind of mystical Orthodox brotherhood between the two countries, in fact Russia supported Yugoslavia's territorial integrity because the Russian Federation is itself divided into republics and autonomous regions which could likewise break apart--and which appeared to be, for much of the 1990s. Thus, despite the fact that the Russian government for years supported the breakaway republics in Georgia, it never went as far as to recognize their independence--until now.
But Russia is playing a dangerous game. In adopting the approach of the United States and Europe in recognizing--when it suits their interests--the independence of such 'mini-republics,' Moscow has won a battle. But does the Russian government really want to go down this road? Russia today is far more stable than it was in the 1990s--Chechnya has largely been quieted, and Moscow has reasserted control over republics like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. But, in buying into the logic of independence for 'mini-republics,' could the Russian government be creating bigger problems for itself in the future?

For the United States and Europe, meanwhile, I think damage control in Georgia has to be accompanied by a new strategy in Ukraine--where the Republic of the Crimea could emerge as a potentially disastrous flashpoint between Russia and the West in the coming years. In Ukraine, ethnic Russians almost unanimously oppose--often quite passionately--the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. George W. Bush's efforts to extend NATO membership to Ukraine could thus precipitate a real crisis, leading to efforts in the Crimea (where the population is overwhelmingly Russian) to secede from Ukraine and a possible Russian recognition of this independence. No matter what, all talk of Ukraine's entry into NATO has to come to an end.

Indeed, the most obvious lesson to be learned from the events of this month is that the White House's policy of beefing up the Georgian military and encouraging NATO membership has been very counterproductive. Even without Saakashvili's disastrous decision to attack South Ossetia, Georgia's entry into the alliance would have precipitated a crisis with the two breakaway republics, whose governments and populations were steadfastly against taking part in any kind of anti-Russian military alliance.

Entry into the European Union, on the other hand, would have been welcomed by a significant proportion of the populations of both republics. Imagine how things might have worked out if, instead of pursuing NATO memberships and attacking the two republics, Saakashvili had managed to make serious progress towards membership in the European Union. Would South Ossetia and Abkhazia really have continued to prefer independence--as opposed to, say, a high level of autonomy within Georgia--in the face of provisional Georgian membership in the EU?

It's too late for Georgia, but this lesson needs to be applied to Ukraine. If the United States and Europe wish to extend their influence in Ukraine without provoking a showdown in the Crimea, the less risky path would be to quietly accelerate Ukrainian ties to the European Union and to abandon the idea--at least for now--of NATO membership.

Of course, getting the Europeans to agree to this is another question--especially given the generally low level of esteem with which our current president is viewed in influential European capitals. However, the Europeans are also disturbed by what occurred in Georgia this month, and will perhaps be more receptive to suggestions which seem constructive and unlikely to provoke.

But first, it will be necessary for Americans themselves to make a break with the policies which have led us to this situation.