much of what we are seeing unfold between Russia and Georgia involves a high quotient of American culpability. When Kosovo declared independence and the US and other European states recognized it—thus sidestepping Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council—many of us believed that the price for Russian cooperation in other major global problems just went much higher and that the chance of a clash over Georgia’s breakaway border provinces increased dramatically. By pushing Kosovo the way the US did and aggravating nationalist sensitivities, Russia could in reaction be rationally expected to further integrate and cultivate South Ossetia and Abkhazia under de facto Russian control and pull these provinces that border Russia away from the state of Georgia. At the time, there was word from senior level sources that Russia had asked the US to stretch an independence process for Kosovo over a longer stretch of time—and tie to it some process of independence for the two autonomous Georgia provinces. In exchange, Russia would not veto the creation of a new state of Kosovo at the Security Council. The U.S. rejected Russia’s secret entreaties and instead rushed recognition of Kosovo and said damn the consequences.
In a broader sense Steve Clemons raises the good point that the government of Russia made it pretty clear that if the United States recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia over Russian objections that Russia would retaliate by stepping up support for separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This doesn’t seem to have given any of Georgia’s outspoken friends in the United States any pause. Indeed, strong pro-Georgian views in the U.S. media and foreign policy community correlate heavily with strong pro-Kosovo views. This highlights the fact that the underlying issue here is simply a disposition to take a dim view of Moscow and to favor aggressive policies to roll back Russian influence rather than some kind of deep and sincerely felt desire to help Georgia.
Now I’m not too keen on the ‘brave little Georgia’ crowd myself, but neither of these seems to me to be right. Steve, who’s a realist, doesn’t seem to me to be providing a realist enough take on Russia’s motivations, while Matt seems to be soft-pedalling his liberal internationalism. There are many ways to interpret what’s been happening over the last few days, but one important part of the explanation is an argument over norms, and specifically the relationship between the norms of territorial integrity and self determination, that has been playing out since the end of the Cold War.
For some background to this, see this piece that Greg Flynn and I wrote for International Organization way back in 1999. It’s out of date, and hopelessly optimistic in the light of later developments, but I think it captures something important that was happening in Europe at the time. Mark Zacher’s piece on the territorial integrity norm is more up to date, but it’s behind a paywall. Briefly – relations between states are constituted by norms as well as power. Two key norms in the current system are territorial integrity – states are supposed to keep more or less to their set boundaries except in cases of common agreement (e.g. the dissolution of Czechoslovakia), and self-determination – ‘nations,’ however you define them, are supposed to be able to chart their own path in the international system. These norms are by no means universally respected, but breaking them has usually carried a cost. However, they don’t necessarily sit together comfortably – most obviously, sometimes self-determination would seem to require border change.
During the Cold War, this was all moot, especially on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of Yugoslavia, the tensions between the two norms became ever clearer. The combination of moves towards self-determination and state boundaries that didn’t at well reflect the actual distribution of populations in Central and Eastern Europe could have led to chaos in the Baltic republics (where Russia tried to gin up a secessionist movement among Russian minorities around Narva and elsewhere), around Hungary (where several states had significant minority Hungarian populations, and it wasn’t initially clear that Hungary didn’t want territory back), Macedonia and elsewhere. So diplomats settled on the argument that boundaries should remain fixed – and that ethnic minorities should seek self-determination within those boundaries through democratic institutions which would allow them guarantees that their rights would be protected.
This ended up working pretty well in the states that were likely to (and did) become EU members – the linkage between the conditions for EU membership (the Copenhagen criteria) and respect for minority rights and democracy helped stabilize some situations that otherwise might have become very nasty indeed. The EU’s expansion can be blamed for many things – but it almost certainly pre-empted a number of low level conflicts, and quite possibly a couple of wars. It didn’t work at all well in Central Asia, where initial hints of a move towards democracy were rapidly squashed by autocrats of one kind or another. And it has been unravelling in various states close to Russia, as a result of the strategies both of Russia itself, and the less-than-perfectly-democratic figures who are running these states. These states aren’t especially democratic or respectful of minority rights – but Russia has also quite deliberately stoked up conflicts within these states, and sought to freeze existing conflicts that serve as useful political tools.
This is where we are at the moment. Obviously, this is in part a fight about territory. But it also, more importantly, a fight about the rules that should shape international politics in the region surrounding Russia. And here, John McCain is at least partly right (although the mutterings about going to war over this seem to me to be completely off base). Russia sees the spread of democratization as a threat to its control of the ‘Near Abroad.’ It has been pushing quite deliberately for a redefinition of the norms of territorial integrity and intervention that would legitimate its continued presence in Georgia and elsewhere, and allow it to reconsolidate control over what it perceives as its rightful sphere of influence. What it would like to see is tacit or active recognition by other great powers of its right to intervene in countries such as Georgia, the Ukraine, Moldova etc. The Western powers have their own economic interests in the region, which they have been pushing assiduously, but also would quite genuinely would prefer to see democracies consolidate themselves in this band of countries, if for no other reason than because democracies over the longer term tend to be more stable, and chaos in these countries could easily spill over in nasty ways in Europe and elsewhere.
Russia has pushed in international fora to be allowed to ‘keep the peace’ in neighbouring countries. It has tried to sideline multilateral organizations, preferring instead to have Russian ‘peacekeepers’ – hence the ambiguity over whether Russian soldiers in South Ossetia are indeed keeping the peace, or are instead direct representatives of Russian interests. It has also tried to get rid of democracy promotion and election monitoring organizations such as the OSCE, fearing that democratically elected governments will be less susceptible to Russian pressure, and more likely to align with the West. Language about self-determination has been an useful means to justify interventions in local states which are aimed at weakening their capacity for independent action. Russia’s new demand that Georgia change its government should be interpreted in precisely this light.
This is a battle about legitimacy as well as territory. The West’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence was at best a mistake, and possibly (although not certainly) a very serious mistake indeed. It undermined the principle of territorial integrity in ways that make it much easier for Russia to use this war to really remake the map of the Near Abroad. It would have been better to have gone on with Kosovo as an international protectorate of ambiguous international standing.
But this also implies that Steve’s suggestion – that Western powers should have traded off Kosovan independence for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – would have been an even worse option. It would have been tantamount to an effective recognition of spheres of influence, and a recarving up of Europe into bits where the West dominated, and bits where Russia had its say. Nor do I agree with Steve’s suggestion that Russia was driven to this because nationalist sentiments had been aggravated by overly aggressive Western actions. Russia had been maneuvering for a very long time before Kosovo to get the democratizers out of the Near Abroad, and to be recognized as the rightful settler of disputes/intervenor when it wants to intervene, in the various states around it. The recognition of Kosovo provides a useful rationale for Russian actions, but Russia has been playing an offensive rather than a defensive game for quite a while.
Now it may well be that Steve and those who take similar positions (I expect Anatol Lieven takes a similar line) do believe that it is better to formally recognize spheres of influence – there is certainly a realist case to be made for this. But if so, they should say so, and recognize that this isn’t a situation where Russia has been wronged; rather it is one where the US, Europe and Russia need to come to a tacit accommodation that reflects the balance of power or whatever. This is disagreeable if stated plainly in the terms of US political discourse – but it surely is where their position is leading them.
Matt’s acquiescence to this line seems to me to be a real mistake for a liberal internationalist who believes that the gradual diffusion of democracy is a good thing for international politics. It is tantamount to saying that a large chunk of Europe, which isn’t wonderfully democratic but is surely more democratic than it used to be, should be subject to the effective authority of a state that doesn’t welcome the spread of democracy. This seems to me to set a terrible long term precedent. I don’t have specific policy recommendations for how the US and Europe should respond to the Georgia-Russia war – I am neither an area expert nor a guns’n’bombs specialist. But I’m going to stick my neck out and say that the key objective here isn’t to support Georgia – it’s to prevent this becoming a precedent for the recreation of Russian local hegemony across the wider region. As Carl Bildt says (quoted in the FT):
“We – and Russia – will have to live with the consequences of Russia’s use of force for a long time to come,” he said at the weekend. “No state has a right to intervene militarily in the territory of another state simply because there are individuals there with a passport issued by that state. The obligation to protect people lies with the state in which those individuals are located. “Attempts to apply such a doctrine have plunged Europe into war in the past – and that is why it is so important that this doctrine is emphatically dismissed.”
Update: I largely agree with this piece by Ron Asmus and Richard Holbrooke – while I suspect that Georgia played a considerably larger role than they suggest in precipitating this, their description of the larger problem seems right on target to me.