“Asking who won a given war,” wrote Kenneth Waltz in his classic work ‘Man, the State and War’ is like asking who won the San Francisco earthquake”. Twentieth century wars were so horrible and destructive that now we have all learned that in wars there is no victory, only varying degrees of defeat. This is the rule. But, as with any other rule, there are exceptions. Here the exceptions are little wars. They cause minor casualties and inspire great emotions, thus bringing an illusion of victory. The Russo-Georgia war of August 2008 was just such a little war. It lasted merely five days, but it succeeded in shattering the belief of Europeans that war in the old continent had become a thing of the past. It not only re-drew the state borders in the Caucasus, it changed the terms of Europe’s security debate.
“One reason why past security arrangements in twentieth-century Europe failed,” writes Ronald Asmus in his new book, “was that when tough cases arose - and they often involved faraway countries with complicated names and poorly-understood geography - the major powers opted not to go in to bat to enforce the rules: either the problem was considered too hard, the country not important enough, or one party involved too powerful not to accommodate”. This is exactly what happened in Europe in August 2008. It turned out that what stands today for the European security system is a mixture of Cold War institutions (which have undergone plastic surgery) and liberal norms (not shared by everybody) that happened to be ineffective at the very moment they were needed.
Why and how the Post-Cold War European security system collapsed in the summer of 2008 is the story of Ron Asmus’ groundbreaking book “A Little War that Shook the World”. The book is a sharp, well-written, controversial and powerfully argued analysis of the events and decisions that led to the Russo-Georgian war, and of the way it ended. The author has interviewed most of the key Western and Georgian policy makers who wrote the script of the August drama and his book will remain a major source for anybody who wants to write on the issue. Russian voices are absent from the book and this will predictably make many professional historians unhappy. In reality the omission is less critical than one might think because in essence Asmus’ book is not a history of the five days war, but a dissection of Western strategic thinking at the beginning of the 21st century. The book reads like an audit report - an intriguing combination of details that only an insider can know and critical judgments that only an outsider will dare to share. It is very different from the usual vague platitudes just a step away from the Chamber of Commerce which are sold as policy analysis today.
In less than 200 pages Asmus forcefully argues that Georgia was trapped in a war it did not provoke (readers are entitled to disagree). The unresolved statuses of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were only the superficial causes for the eruption of violence. The real reason was Russia’s decision to prevent Georgia from joining the democratic West. In Asmus’ view the diverging political models adopted by Putin’s Russia and Saakashvili’s Georgia led to the war, rather than some local ethnic conflicts. In its nature the Russo-Georgia war was the Kremlin’s rebellion against the Post-Cold War European security system that Moscow finds unfair and tilted against its interests. “Tbilisi became the whipping boy for Russian resentment against the US and NATO.” Diverging from the politically correct interpretation of events, Asmus asserts that the West’s push for Kosovo’s independence without a plan for mitigating the possible fallout in Georgia and the destructively ambiguous message that came from NATO’s Bucharest Summit (Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership, but denied MAP) almost pre-determined the timing of the war.
The conclusion: had the alliance stood fully committed and unified behind Georgia and Ukraine “Moscow might have backed down”. But NATO chose the worst of all worlds - it made empty commitments while widening the gap between its political rhetoric and its actions on the ground, thus increasing the risk for its allies in the region. Georgia had the misfortune of trying to go west at a time when the West was coming apart. The policy recommendation: if NATO backs down to Russian pressure and shies away from expanding the Alliance in the post-Soviet space, the West will reward Russia for its aggression and will bring back the spheres of influence politics in Europe.
Asmus’ position should not come as a surprise to anybody who follows his writings. The book reflects the experience and the mindset of the East European generation in American foreign policy. This generation emerged on the stage in the last days of the Cold War. It was baptized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, inspired by the thinking of dissidents and it never lost its belief in the transformative nature of democracy. Strobe Talbott’s 1996 Foreign Affairs article “Democracy and National Interest. Idealpolitik as a Realpolitik” is the political manifesto of this generation. Doing the unthinkable was its modus operandi. In his days in Clinton’s administration Ron Asmus was among the most forceful advocates for double truck enlargement of NATO and the EU as the best policy for transforming and unifying Europe.
It is impossible not to admire this generation for its unity of purpose, moral clarity and what they have achieved for the last two decades, but should we trust its policy instincts? We all are the prisoners of our formative experiences and in this sense the East European generation in American foreign policy is no exception. It was a generation shaped by the end of the Cold War, the dilemmas of the Balkan wars and the success of the enlargement policy. It is a generation that came to importance at the moment when American power was at its height and American leadership was taken for granted. Ron Asmus’ instinct is to universalize the experience of the 1990s and to believe that what worked at the time when the Baltic countries joined NATO should work in Georgia and Ukraine. But how realistic is this? Is it realistic to believe that Putin’s Russia will behave like Yeltsin’s Russia or that Merkel’s Germany is identical to Kohl’s?
Reading Asmus’ book one is struck by the extent to which NATO policy makers misread the intentions of both its allies and its opponents in the days prior to the war. The West bet that Moscow would back Kosovo’s independence in the UN Security Council. The expectation was that the Kremlin was planning to trade its support for some other political goodies closer to its heart. This turned to be a false expectation. Kosovo did not matter much geopolitically for the Russians, but it was of great symbolic importance for the Kremlin, so Moscow blocked Kosovan independence in the UN Security Council. Western policy makers were sure that Russia had no interest in conflict in the Caucasus and that the Kremlin would never recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thus creating a precedent that could fuel Chechnya’s aspirations for independence. This judgment turned out to be wrong too. By recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia the Kremlin was taking a risk, but the Russian leadership was ready to take any risk in order to avoid the perception of being weak and irrelevant.
The extent to which Western policy makers misread their allies in the region was striking too. The political dynamics in the post-Soviet space cannot be reduced to a clash between democracy and authoritarianism, between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces. The political processes in the region are far more complicated. State-building and not democracy-building was the major objective in the first decades of post-Soviet transitions. The elites in post-Soviet republics use all available resources and perform unthinkable geopolitical zigzags to survive and to consolidate their fragile states. They adopted a Tito style policy, trying to use the tensions between East and West to consolidate their statehood. In this respect the authoritarian Lukashenka is not very different from the democrat Yulia Tymoshenko. So, it should not come as a surprise that for Saakashvili regaining Georgia’s territorial integrity was the prime goal of his government and he was very selective in listening to the advice coming from the West or implementing Europe’s best democratic practices.
So, Ron Asmus is right to view the Russo-Georgia war as a turning point in the politics of European security. Where he could be wrong is his insistence that “staying the course” of the 1990s is the only reasonable response to Russia’s revisionism. In my view “staying the course” will not work. The enlargement that worked so marvelously in the last decade in Central Europe has lost the support of European publics and European leaders have lost their self-confidence, while disappointment with the behaviour of the post-Soviet elites is growing in Western capitals. It is reasonable to claim that NATO made a strategic mistake falling into the trap of symbolic politics in its relations with Moscow. As a result we allowed Russia to set the agenda and to narrow our choices. In order to demonstrate that Moscow will never have a veto on our decisions we gave Russia the right to define the terms of our policy debate. It was Russia’s insistence that Ukraine and Georgia should never become members of NATO plus Bush’s dream to have a legacy other than Iraq that forced NATO leaders in Bucharest to offer Ukraine and Georgia membership in the Alliance. This was at a time when Ukraine was lacking public and elite consensus for such a move and when NATO was not ready to protect Georgia against Russia’s rollback. Ron Asmus may disagree, but reading his book strengthened my conviction that the securitization of the relations in the post-Soviet space primarily benefits Russia. Europe today is very different from the Europe of the Cold War: the “Finlandization” of the post-Soviet space does now serve the long-term interests of the West. We should not be afraid of Georgia or Ukraine becoming Finland: the only condition should be that it’s the Finland of today, not the 1970s.