From the Russian viewpoint, the war against Georgia is really “about” NATO expansion and Russian dominance over the “near abroad”: i.e., the other bits of what used to be the USSR. Remember, Georgia asked for a NATO Membership Action Plan, Russia protested, and NATO backed down, giving Georgia a vague promise-to-think-about-doing-something-sometime instead. Putin has just demonstrated how much he appreciated that concession.
Right now, it looks as if a combination of good planning and loose morals on Putin’s part, recklessness on Saakashvili’s part, fecklessness in Washington, and a United States
badly weakened both militarily and diplomatically by the Iraq disaster is going to hand Putin a big win. And right now, there doesn’t seem to be a hell of a lot we can do about it, especially with oil at $120 a barrel and Russia a big exporter.
Russia isn’t going to retake Georgia, though I wouldn’t rule out an application some time from now by South Ossetia and Abkhazia to rejoin the Russian Federation. But it’s entirely possible that Putin will be in a position to dictate who is, or at least who isn’t, the President of Georgia, and what policies Georgia will and won’t pursue, just as the old USSR did to Finland. The Russian Foreign Minister has already said that Russia won’t negotiate with Georgia as long as Saakashvili is President. You can’t get much clearer than that.
All right, not the end of the world, though somewhat tough on the Georgians, who (probably rightly) feel that the Americans promised to stand behind them and then chickened out when the chips were down. And it’s certainly bad to put Russia in a position where it can dominate what would otherwise have been the only oil pipeline into Europe that it didn’t own directly.
But of course now that it turns out that neither the U.S. nor Europe will actually dare to say “boo” to Russian aggression, we can expect to see more of it. Moldova and Ukraine are the obvious next targets.
So the problem is how to prevent that, and to demonstrate to Putin that recklessness has costs. (Yes, yes, I know that it’s a little bit silly for the Bush Administration to offer prudence lessons, but you conduct diplomacy with the Administration you have, not the Administration you wish you had.)
Bluster and threats to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics aside, is there anything we could actually do to make Putin wish he’d stayed at home? I have two ideas, which I offer in full deference to those who know more about foreign policy than I do (that is, almost everybody.
Plan A: Since Russia invaded Georgia to prevent Georgian membership in NATO, admit Georgia to NATO at once and send (token) NATO forces right away. Not to attack Russian forces, but to confront Putin with a choice between respecting the territorial integrity of (what remains of) Georgia or actually ordering Russian troops to kill NATO soldiers. Somehow I think that’s a step he doesn’t want to take.
Of course, that would mean reining in Saakashvili. Georgian forces would have to be integrated into the NATO command structure. If Georgia is a NATO member and under the NATO shield, then the Georgian Army can’t attack Russian troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Those provinces are lost to Georgia, which sort of sucks for the ethnic Georgians (and South Ossetians who prefer the government in Tblisi to their local warlord and his Russian masters) but isn’t fatal to Georgian nationhood; after all, those places mostly haven’t been actually ruled from Tblisi since the Soviet Union broke up.
So Georgia gets independence and NATO membership but loses the provinces; Russia gets control of the provinces but has NATO on its doorstep. Not an unconditional win for anyone, which beats the hell of the flat-out loss we’re facing now.
Plan B Since Ukraine matters more than Georgia does, both to the West and to the Russians, make the play there. Admit Ukraine to NATO membership, without actually basing any NATO forces there, and make it clear that basing decisions will depend in part on how Russia treats Georgia and Moldova. That would be a much bigger black eye for Putin than anything we could do in Georgia directly.
Now, I have no idea whether our NATO allies would back either play (though Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltics seem pretty bent out of shape about what’s happening in Georgia. Russia has cards to play; it could get cold in Western Europe this winter. And confronting Russia means not confronting Iran. (Which, to be honest, I think is the right thing to do on other grounds; our long-term play in Iran is to foster goodwill toward us and ill-will toward the mullahs on the part of the Iranian population.)
But if we’re not willing to do something like this, then let’s cut all the crap about how Russia “must” do this and that and how “Russian aggression” “cannot go unanswered” and “cannot be allowed to stand.”
Talk is cheap. Whiskey costs money.
Update Several hours ago, Obama came out for a slow-walk version of Plan A: a NATO Membership Action Plan for Georgia, combined with the statement that “Georgia should refrain from using force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia;” obviously, a government that can’t use force in an area no longer governs that area. (Turns out that Obama had favored a MAP for Georgia even before the current crisis.)
Second update The Traub piece in Sunday’s NYT provides a crucial bit of background: about 200,000 ethnic Georgians got ethnically cleansed from Abkhazia when it broke away, and their return is a major issue in Georgian politics. Jonathan Kulick writes that no Georgian politician who ceded Abkhazia could survive, while “people who hate Saakashvili are rallying around him (for now).”
So Plan A seems to be dead, because Saakashvili couldn’t promise to leave Abkhazia alone. If that’s right, Georgia is up the proverbial polluted estuary with no visible means of propulsion.
Kulick also believes that France and Germany wouldn’t go along with either Plan A or Plan B.