For many so-called international affairs experts, Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia marked a spectacular return to great power politics. A resurgent and deadly serious Russia, the argument goes, shocked the Western world into a 21st century reality that would mirror that of the 19th. The age of soft power ended on 8 August, 2008.
But, for those of us who have been long-time Caucasus watchers, soft power was never all that relevant.
Since NATO’s surrender of initiative to Russia at this past April’s Alliance summit in Bucharest, Moscow had stepped up its not-so-subtle jabbing of Georgia in the side through its two breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Before August, Russian fighters had already shot down Georgian reconnaissance drones, Russian bombers had already dropped warning munitions in Georgia proper, and Russian peacekeepers had already established a 15 year record of aiding separatist militias against Georgia.
An outright invasion was a surprise, but not a paradigm-shifting shock. More unexpected, however, was Russian President Medvedev’s swift recognition of the breakaway territories as independent states. High-profile Russian Duma and Federation Council deputies had been calling for the move for years, so the unanimous votes in both houses of Russia’s parliament were just one more small, populist step. But, few regional experts would have predicted a Kremlin endorsement, much less one the very next day.
Until now, the argument had been that while bombastic parliamentarians might threaten recognition to punish upstart Georgia on purely emotional grounds, the cool-headed Kremlin would resist the Pandora’s box of officially sanctioning separatism and armed rebellion in the volatile Caucasus.
Moscow is still grappling with the remnants of two wars in Chechnya – just north of Georgia’s South Ossetia – in which Russia risked international condemnation to crush separatist rebellions through campaigns of extermination that rivaled anything witnessed in the former Yugoslavia. With more than 160 distinct ethnic groups, Russia’s vast expanse is a checkerboard just waiting to be riven by self-determination.
Paradoxically, however, it seems that Moscow’s fury over the recognition of another breakaway territory: Kosovo, now firmly within the geopolitical bounds of NATO and the European Union, added fuel to the fire that finally lead to Russian tank columns streaming into Georgian territory. That is not to say that the West was wrong in recognizing Kosovo’s independence. But, it is to say that Washington, London and other European capitals should have taken Moscow’s threats seriously when it specifically mentioned recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as retaliation for the move.
That lesson, the realisation that Russian leaders are serious when they threaten redirected nuclear targeting on the EU in response to US missile defense plans in Central Europe, that they are keenly intent on blocking Western access to the alternative energy resources of the Caspian, that they actively seek to carve out a sphere of influence to dominate EU-aspirant Ukraine and Georgia, is a valuable one.
It is a lesson that underscores the importance of Western preparation in the face of Moscow’s distribution of passports in Ukraine’s majority ethnic-Russian Crimean peninsula – the primary facilitating logic behind the Kremlin’s claims to be protecting Russian citizens in South Ossetia.
Great power politics has not made a comeback. It was always the modus operandi on Europe’s periphery. Not so far away places like Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan see the hard power of armed conflict every day. Were it not for the NATO military umbrella over the rest of the continent, Western Europe would not be immune to similar Metternichian machinations. And, it is for this reason that Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be seen for what it is: preparation for annexation of internationally-recognized Georgian territory to the Russian Federation.
Russia’s willingness to break the so-called international rules of territorial integrity enshrined in post-1945 institutions is less a challenge to the ideas and ideals of those institutions and more a threat to the military and political frameworks that underpin them. In other words, Russia is challenging NATO, the EU, the UN Security Council and the might of the United States that keeps them afloat. Experts may point to the folly of such a decision, but it is in line with Russian actions on the Eurasian landmass since time immemorial.
Alexandros Petersen is Southeast Europe Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Adjunct Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington