Common Ground in the Caucasus

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The conflict over Georgia raises an issue familiar from history: in 1914, an essentially local issue was seen by so many nations through the lens of established fears and frustrations that it became global in scope and led to the First World War.

There is no danger of general war today. But there is the risk that a conflict arising out of ancestral passions in the Caucasus will be treated as an excuse for a larger conflict, threatening the imperative of building a new international order in a world of globalization, nuclear proliferation, ethnic conflicts, and technological revolution.

The presence of Russian troops on the territory of a state newly independent from the old Soviet empire was bound to send tremors through all the other countries that established themselves after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This has evoked a flood of confrontation, reciprocal threats, and retaliatory countermeasures: U.S. naval forces have been in the Black Sea; Russian military and economic capability has been displayed in the Caribbean as if from a nineteenth-century balance-of-power playbook.

The Georgian clash is cited as proof that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is committed to unraveling the post-Soviet international order in Europe. Isolating Russia has been advocated in response. The United States and Russia were without high-level contact from early August until a recent meeting between the U.S. secretary of state and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Nongovernmental contacts have been curtailed.

This drift toward confrontation needs to end.

However appropriate as a temporary device for showing our concern, isolating Russia is not a sustainable long-range policy. It is neither feasible nor desirable to isolate a country spanning one-eighth of the earth’s surface, adjoining Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and possessing a stockpile of nuclear weapons comparable to that of the United States.

Given Russia’s historically ambivalent and emotionally insecure relations with its neighbors, isolating it is not likely to evoke considered or constructive Russian responses. Even much of Western Europe is uneasy about such a course.

In 1983, when the Soviets deliberately shot down a Korean airliner that had wandered into their airspace, there were calls to cut off all relations with the Soviet Union. President Reagan followed a different course. The United States vigorously invited all countries to join in sharp condemnation. At the same time, Reagan sent our arms control negotiators back to Geneva and his secretary of state (one of this essay’s authors) to Madrid for already scheduled meetings with Soviet counterparts. Strength and diplomacy remained in step.

Like most wars, the 2008 Georgian crisis originated in a series of miscalculations. Georgia’s leadership misjudged the scope for military action and the magnitude of Russia’s response. Russia was perhaps surprised by the West’s reaction to the scale of its intervention. Moscow may not have fully considered the impact on other countries of its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states or the precedent this action might set, even in some regions of Russia.

These miscalculations should not be allowed to dominate future policy. America has an important stake in the territorial integrity of an independent Georgia but not in confrontational diplomacy toward Russia by its neighbors.

Russia needs to understand that using or threatening military force evokes memories that reinforce the very obstacles to cooperative relations that are the basis of its grievances. America must decide whether to deal with Russia as a possible strategic partner or as a threat to be combated by principles drawn from the Cold War.

It is neither feasible nor desirable to isolate Russia, a country spanning one-eighth of the earth’s surface and possessing a nuclear stockpile comparable to that of the United States.

Of course, should Russia pursue the policies its detractors assign to it, America must, and will, resist by all appropriate measures. Those of us who had responsibilities in conducting the Cold War would take the lead in supporting such a strategy.

We are not yet at that point. Russia’s leaders undoubtedly deplore the dissolution of the Russian and Soviet Empire. But if they are at all realistic— and in our experience they are—they know that it is impossible and dangerous for Russia to seek to reverse its history by military means.

Russia’s history displays a tale of ambivalent oscillation between the restraints of the European order and the temptations for expansion into the strategic vacuums along its borders in Asia and the Middle East. These vacuums no longer exist.

In the West, NATO is a formidable strategic presence. In the east, there is a resurgent Asia, to which the center of gravity of world affairs is shifting. In the south, Russia faces a partially radicalized Islam along a long border. Inside Russia, the demographic prospects are for a decline in the total population and a relative rise in the percentage of its Muslim portion, already partially disaffected.

Russia has not yet been able to address its infrastructure and health deficit adequately. With a GDP less than one-sixth of that of the United States (in terms of purchasing power parity) and a defense budget less than a third of that of the European Union and a small fraction of America’s, Russia is not well placed to conduct a superpower struggle with America or its allies. Russian leaders, whatever their rhetoric, know this.

What they have sought, sometimes clumsily, is acceptance as equals in a new international system rather than as losers in a Cold War to whom terms could be dictated. Their methods have occasionally been truculent. Understanding the psychology of its international environment has never been a Russian specialty—partly because of the historic difference in domestic evolution between Russia and its neighbors, especially in the West.

America must decide whether to deal with Russia as a possible strategic partner or as a threat to be combated under Cold War principles.

But, in fairness, neither has the West always been sensitive to how the world looks from Moscow.

Take the case of the evolution of NATO. For its first fifty years, NATO legitimized itself as a defensive alliance. In undertaking a war of choice against Yugoslavia in 1999, NATO proclaimed the right to achieve its moral aspirations by offensive military action. The authors strongly supported NATO policy at the time. The war to stop Serbian human rights violations in Kosovo, ended in part by Russian mediation, provided for an autonomous Kosovo under titular Serbian sovereignty but de facto European Union supervision. In 2008, that status was changed by, in effect, a unilateral decision of a group of European nations and the United States to declare independence for Kosovo without U.N. endorsement and over strenuous Russian objections.

The Kosovo decision occurred nearly simultaneously with the publication of the plan to move antiballistic missiles into Poland and the Czech Republic and a proposal to invite Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. Moving the East-West security line in a historically short period, from the Elbe to 1,000 miles to the east, changing the mission of NATO, and deploying advanced weapons technology in Eastern Europe on the territory of former Soviet satellites were not likely to be met with Russian acquiescence.

This narrative explains some of Russia’s motivations; it does not seek to justify every response or the confrontational rhetoric occasionally employed. But it does suggest the importance of looking at the current crisis with some historical and psychological perspective.

The immediate crises should not deflect us from long-term responsibilities. The six points put forward by French President Nicolas Sarkozy provide a framework for a solution of the Georgian crisis formally accepted by all the parties: a genuinely independent Georgia, within its existing borders; the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—disputed since the founding of Georgia—continues as the subject of negotiation within the security framework put forward in Sarkozy’s six points.

In April 2008, Presidents Bush and Putin, in a meeting in Russia at Sochi, outlined a program of cooperation between Russia and the United States to deal with the long-term requirements of world order. It included such subjects as nonproliferation, Iran, energy, methods to defuse the impact of the antiballistic missile deployment in Eastern Europe, and possibly linking some American and Russian antiballistic missile defense systems.

Understanding the psychology of its international environment has never been a Russian specialty, but, in fairness, neither has the West always been sensitive to how the world looks from Moscow.

The two countries possess more than 90 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. Their cooperation is imperative if proliferation is to be stopped. Climate change and energy equally demand a cooperative global approach. We must not be diverted from these tasks by an avoidable policy of confrontation.

The Sochi document provides a useful road map for the future. It goes without saying that Russia should not be allowed to invoke the common interest as a way to achieve its special concerns by military pressure and intimidation.

Those of us who question the urgency with which the membership in NATO of Georgia and Ukraine was pursued are not advocating a sphere of influence for Russia in Eastern Europe. We consider Ukraine an essential part of the European architecture, and we favor a rapid evolution toward EU membership.

We do believe that the security of Ukraine and Georgia should be placed in a larger context than that of mechanically advancing an integrated NATO command to within a few hundred miles of Moscow. NATO has already agreed to the principle of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

Delaying its implementation until a new U.S. administration is able to consider its options is not a concession but an act of responsible management of the future.

Finally, our ability to conduct foreign policy effectively toward Russia requires energetic efforts to restore our domestic strength. Our financial house must be put in order, not just the immediate crisis but the structure of the wave of entitlement programs facing us.

We are far too dependent on oil imports and, as a result, are subjected to the greatest transfer of wealth in a short time that the world has ever seen. We need legislation that gives a long-term time horizon to comprehensive and determined efforts to end this state of affairs.

Diplomacy without strength is sterile. Strength without diplomacy tempts posturing. We believe that the fundamental interests of the United States, Europe, and Russia are more aligned today—or can be made to be so—even in the wake of the Georgian crisis, than at any point in recent history.

We must not waste that opportunity.