Johnson's Russia List

2006-#232 16 October 2006 #42


From: Andrei Tsygankov <>

Subject: Georgia Is a Victim of NATO Expansion


Russia’s decision to impose tough sanctions against Georgia after the “spy scandal” was met with almost a universal condemnation in the West. Western policy makers used a more cautious language, than most of the media, and even warned Tbilisi against offensive actions and rhetoric. Yet they insisted on immediate cessation of the sanctions, and the special representative of the NATO Secretary-General Robert Simmons extended his support for Tbilisi during his demonstrative trip to Georgia in the midst of the crisis. In the meantime, president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili continued to exploit the same line of condemning Russia’s “imperialism” in apparent hope to extract an additional support from the West for policies of subjugating secessionist territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia. Few seem to be eager to learn if Russia has anything to say in its defense.


The sanctions coming from the Kremlin were not merely a response to Tbilisi’s arrest and intent to put Russian officers on trial in Georgia. Moscow reacted to the arrest within hours with a heavy package of economic and political sanctions ­ too swift and comprehensive a response to be directly linked to the actions of Tbilisi. Nor is it sufficient to see Russia’s response as an effort to prevent further escalation of violence between Tbilisi and separatist provinces after Saakashvili’s regime had signaled its willingness to resort to force and provocations. Although there is much truth to the explanation that credits Russia’s concerns about these conflicts’ escalation, a larger issue involved is NATO’s expansion. One can hardly believe the Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s assurances that Russia is not concerned by the alliance’s decision to invite Georgia to a new Intensified Dialogue with NATO and by Tbilisi’s ambitions to gain full membership in the organization. More robust statements have been coming for quite some time from various officials who, like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, insisted that the possible entry of Ukraine and Georgia to NATO would bring about a tremendous "geopolitical shift" and that Russia would then “revise its policy.” It is more likely that Ivanov is merely trying to sweeten the pill because so far Russia has lost most of major and minor battles to stop the process of NATO expansion.


How can Russia not be concerned by the process? Its every effort to build a broad cooperative security framework with Western nations has been thwarted. In the meantime, despite all the talk about NATO’s democratic nature and transformation after the Cold War, it remains a military alliance of a formidable power. Even if it has no hostile intentions toward Russia, it certainly has ample capabilities to present a potential threat. Now that NATO has its bases in multiple states bordering Russia, Western military planes can reach some of Russia’s strategic sites within minutes, not hours. Washington’s plans to deploy elements of missile defense system to the territory of some Eastern European states, such as Poland, too can hardly meet with Moscow’s approval. Activating such system in case of a confrontation with Iran or another future nuclear state is likely to mean a major damage to Russia.


Russia is also concerned when Georgia’s officials almost openly threaten that, unlike Baltics, they may not have objections against possible future deployment of weapons of mass destruction on their territory by NATO. Furthermore, Moscow can hardly forget how the decision to expand the alliance was pushed through with a concerted assistance of the Russophobic Eastern European lobby in Washington and Brussels. If Eastern Europeans had legitimate fears of a threat coming from Russia, then Russia’s fear of NATO too is no less justified. History and perceptions are difficult to change. After all, for several decades NATO was the enemy of Russia, and so far the Western alliance hasn’t been doing a very good job of trying to reverse the perception. After the Cold War, the West has been riding high on its “victory” treating Russia as a defeated enemy, and this remains a root cause of resentment on the part of Moscow. Despite multiple warnings from known authorities on Russia, such as George Kennan and Jack Matlock, NATO has been expanding. It chose to ignore arguments that Russia’s hurt pride was at stake and it would only be a matter of time before a resentful Kremlin responds. Now that Russia has gained a new confidence, should the West be surprised at its growing assertiveness? How would the United States feel if Russia were to be deploying its missile system and military assistance in its close proximity, say, in Mexico or Canada? The spat with Georgia seems to be a crucial test of will for Moscow. After it had thwarted NATO’s plans for a joint training exercise with Ukraine in Crimea, the Kremlin seems determined to stop Tbilisi’s pro-Western ambitions. The so-called “frozen conflicts” are merely leverage in the Kremlin’s hands, and they will remain frozen until NATO bears out plans to continue its march to the East.


The Russia-Georgia crisis is only an indicator of a bigger Russia-West crisis, and that crisis is only in its beginning stage. The worst may yet to come, because the parties seem set to act unilaterally, rather than look for a compromise. Russia certainly feels it had enough of compromising with NATO, since most of it has only produced concessions on Russia’s part. Moscow is unlikely to back off when it has full support at home and when perceived honor of great power is at stake. Since Yevgeni Primakov’s unsuccessful opposition to NATO’s expansion, Vladimir Putin has tried to reengage the West into yet another common security framework. However, the post-9/11 cooperation with the United States is now largely over, and ­ as far as the Kremlin is concerned ­ largely because of US arrogant attitude toward Russia. NATO is a huge bureaucratic machine that is now continuing its expansion by inertia more than by anything else. Although it may think it has things under control, in reality the alliance is an increasingly obsolete organization with no clear mission to defend and severely undermined credibility in the eyes of Russia. As for Georgia, it remains led by hot-headed politicians who live in their own dream world. Saakashvili and his advisors are determined to benefit further from the Russia-West confrontation, and they are dependent on the image of Russia-threat in their policies. The Tbilisi regime seems to have burned all the bridges, and now it must exploit that image more than ever. Unlike Moldova that, after having gone through an extensive round of economic pressures from Moscow, is now pursuing a new policy of reengaging the Kremlin, Saakashvili is locked in his epical struggle with the evil Goliaf.


All of this is reminiscent of the beginning of the Cold War, a conflict that was about great power honor and prestige more than about anything else. The United States wanted to secure Europe on its own terms, while Russia was insisting that it too deserved “fruits of victory.” Having made a more considerable human and material effort to defeat Hitler than the allies and having suffered much greater losses, Moscow felt vindicated in demanding recognition of its newly acquired great power status. The United States and Britain fearful of Russia’s ambitions abandoned the “triple alliance” and pushed through their own plans of pacifying the continent. Eastern Europe was re-divided again and became a cordon sanitaire separating hostile powers. Today’s Russia is weaker and not claiming an expanded area of influence; NATO does. But the underlying causes of the current conflict are the same, and it increasingly looks like Russia has had just about enough of being pushed around by the Western powers. Any attempts to punish Moscow or moralize about its Georgia’s strategy are therefore sure to exacerbate the already sour relationships with the West.