On Not Connecting the Dots

Something struck me when I was reading this review of Ronald Asmus’ recent book, A Little War that Shook the World. The book is Asmus’ take on the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, coming mainly from a political/security perspective, which makes sense since Asmus himself was part of the State Department during the Clinton Administration and is currently involved in the Marshall Fund.

What struck me was that, in January of 2010, a year and a half after the war, a reasonably well-known historian like Max Hastings could pen a review full of so many half-truths, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods and actually have it published in a fairly major newspaper. Hastings’ account relies on a narrative that has been promulgated in the Western media since August 2008. It is a narrative that relies heavily on a well-organized campaign of propaganda on the part of Russia, taking for granted Moscow’s geopolitical claims to what Hastings calls “suzerainty” over the post-Soviet world.

Indeed, one almost wonders how closely Hastings read the book in question.

He writes that

The Bush administration feted Saakashvili, endorsed his aspirations and loved the fact that Georgians love America. Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain joined in nominating Saakashvili for the Nobel peace prize. Although Washington warned him repeatedly not to tangle with the Russians militarily, he deluded himself that his old buddy George W would not leave him hung out to dry.

This, to say the least, is not the impression that Asmus gives in his book (nor is it the impression one gets from reading other sources regarding Georgia’s diplomatic campaign in the lead-up to the war). Quite to the contrary, Asmus explicitly notes that

Saakashvili had few illusions about the West’s coming to Georgia’s assistance militarily if he got into a fight with the Russians. No one knew better than he did how often and how clearly Washington had warned him the U.S. cavalry would not be coming over the hill to save him. (Asmus, 29)

Deciphering just how this supposedly translates into a “delusion” that “his old buddy George W” would come and save the day is left as an exercise for the reader. Suffice it to say that Asmus makes very clear that Saakashvili’s decision to go to war was motivated not by lunatic hubris or the fantasy that a column of M1A1’s would soon be redeployed from Iraq and presently find themselves rumbling toward Gori to check the Russian advance. Rather, he explains Saakashvili’s motives as being essentially rooted in a narrative of Georgian history that emphasizes Georgia’s cultural dominance by Russia pre-1917, its brief period of independence and subsequent conquest by the Bolsheviks in 1922, followed by 70 years of Soviet oppression.

As much as restoring the territorial integrity of “historic Georgia,” then, Saakashvili worried that, by allowing Russia to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia unopposed, not only would his government almost surely collapse (and while it’s easy to look at his administration with a jaundiced eye in the West, in comparison with what preceded it, the government of the “Rose Revolution” was a striking improvement), but Georgia would almost certainly fall once again under the Russian yoke. Indeed, one of the express goals of the “Rose Revolution” was to loosen Russia’s grip on the Georgian government, which had become heavily infiltrated by people close to Russian intelligence services during the administration of Saakashvili’s predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

The war itself was preceded by months (or years, depending on how one looks at it) of Russian provocations, unilateral deal-breaking, and ratcheting up of separatist sentiment in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (as well as Adjara, which Georgia managed to re-integrate into Georgia proper without bloodshed, a development for which Russia promised revenge). Russia also engaged itself in such skullduggery as issuing passports en masse to the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, later using their status as “Russian citizens” as an excuse to invade in order to “protect” them (a tactic that shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone with knowledge of how Germany dismantled Czechoslovakia in 1938).

When South Ossetian “militants,” aided and abetted by putative Russian “peacekeepers” began to shell Georgian positions and when it became clear that North Caucasian “volunteers” from Chechnya and elsewhere, along with the massive Russian military column that was rolling through the Roki Tunnel between North and South Ossetia were infiltrating Georgian territory, Saakashvili made the decision to move into South Ossetia.

With all of this in mind, it’s rather difficult to see the Georgian “invasion” of South Ossetia (and under international law, there was no “invasion” by Georgia, since South Ossetia was Georgian territory; Rather it was Russia that violated international borders) as an unprovoked assault backed by the promise of American military force. The supposed “genocide” that Russia claimed it was stepping in to put an end to was a total fabrication, one which Max Hastings, mercifully, doesn’t attempt to repeat.

And yet as late as January of 2010, Hastings does try to sell the narrative that Saakashvili “attacked the Russians” because he thought “George W” was going to rescue him. But why?

The easiest answer to that question would appear to be “abject ignorance.” While one would hope that journalists and published historians such as Max Hastings would take the time to acquaint themselves with their subjects, such is not always the case. Indeed, just as Americans in general were pilloried for not being able to “pick out Iraq on a map” on the eve of the invasion in 2003, Hastings himself seems to have little understanding of the intricacies of what Neville Chamberlain might have called a “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

But being un-curious isn’t Hastings’ only sin. His review is also marked by its fundamental un-seriousness, bending the entire drama of the South Caucasus into a narrative about the wages of neocon hubris that was past its shelf date by the time it hit the presses. To wit:

The United States made a limp-wristed response to Russian aggression — which the invasion of Georgia certainly was — because its global authority had been wrecked in Iraq.

The premise of this argument — that the American response to the invasion was “limp-wristed” because of the war in Iraq — is, to put a fine point on it, completely false. While Saakashvili was indeed something of a diplomatic superstar in Washington and the push to include Georgia (and Ukraine, it must be remembered) in NATO was real, there was always a deep-seated ambivalence over Georgia. It had, after all, come perilously close to being a “failed state” before the Rose Revolution, and the so-called “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjara (all of which were exacerbated by Russian “peacekeepers” for years) meant that Georgia had a long way to go before becoming part of NATO and an even longer way before Western governments would consider engaging in a shooting war on its behalf.

Nevertheless, if Saakashvili was feted in the West, it wasn’t because of some grand scheme to “encircle” Russia, it was because Georgia, with Saakashvili at the fore, was determined to become part of the West. As any number of authors have made clear, Asmus among them, it was this, coupled with a renewed Russian chauvinism and Russian strategic thinking that views the international relations as a zero-sum game, that contributed to tensions.

Hastings, on the other hand, says that a desire to “teach the West a lesson” over Kosovo, a desire rooted in pan-Slavism, was the chief motivating factor for the war:

The West wilfully ignored the fact that recognition of Kosovo’s February 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia outraged Moscow’s sense of Slav solidarity. It was bound to provoke a response.

This argument, however, amounts to a rhetorical sleight of hand, one perhaps intended to mask Hastings’ own ignorance of the subtleties of Russian politics and the specifics of post-Soviet history. What he’s done, you’ll see, is essentially shift the blame from Russia (or even Georgia) to the West — specifically the Bush Administration. Recognizing Kosovo was “bound” to “provoke” Russia into (re)action.


Of course, it is undeniable that Kosovo did play a certain role in the detachment of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, though the magnitude of that role is debatable. Vladimir Putin was certainly not pleased by the “Kosovo precedent,” but, contra Hastings, it had virtually nothing to do with “Slav solidarity,” and such an assertion is utterly laughable. In reality, Russia worried about Kosovo because, as a result of Soviet nationality policy, Russia has inherited dozens of potential “Kosovos,” the most famous of which is obviously Chechnya. If Kosovo was allowed independence, why not Chechnya? Or Ingushetia? Or Kabardino-Balkaria? Or Tartarstan? Or…?

Unsurprisingly, given its own potential “Kosovos,” and indeed its own precarious situation vis-a-vis Russia, Georgia has never recognized Kosovar independence either.

Suffice it to say that the “Slavic solidarity” argument is even less convincing than the notion that the United States invaded Iraq in the name of women’s rights.

Regardless, while it arguably was the case that the West failed to adequately consider Moscow’s sensibilities, Hastings treats Russia as a purely reactive entity, a dumb beast with no policy of its own or any conception of its own destiny. While he notes that Putin did indeed promise a “response” to Kosovo, he is apparently unaware that Putin made the exact same threat when Georgia brought Adjara back under its control. And regardless of that, Russian meddling in Georgia long preceded the February 2008 recognition of Kosovo, by some measures dating as far back as 1993.

All of which is to say that, rather than “provoking a response,” Kosovo “provided a pretext.”

More than anything, though, Hastings’ review appears to have been conceived of as a broadside against neoconservatism and Bushian democracy promotion:

Asmus’s book, which reads more like the work of a Washington neocon than of a Democrat, argues that before the 2008 war the West was mistaken not to offer decisive support for Georgia’s aspiration to join Nato, to install EU monitors in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and to send tough deterrent signals to Moscow.


Asmus argues that Russia has paid a heavy price for its Georgian ­victory, in loss of international trust. But America has crippled its own global standing by perceived double standards and ill-judged meddling abroad, above all in Iraq. President Obama seeks to repair the damage, but it will be a long job. Meanwhile, cautious diplomacy seems the wisest approach to Moscow, rather than principled posturing unrelated to ­unpalatable military realities.

All of which is to miss the point. Asmus and others have argued that, in some sense, there was no way to prevent this war, at least given the current paradigm in Washington and Brussels. There simply was no real interest in Georgia (or Ukraine, or the post-Soviet in general). Vague promises about “future inclusion” in NATO were made, but these amounted to almost nothing. Russia, for its part, was treated as a sideshow. China and fundamentalist Islam had long since eclipsed the West’s interest in Eastern Europe, to say nothing of the Caucasus (if you were amazed when people couldn’t point out Iraq on a map, imagine asking them to find Azerbaijan, Georgia, or Armenia) and Russia was left to its own devices. This wasn’t “triumphalism,” this was almost complete disinterest. As long as Russia was saying what we wanted to hear about battling Wahabbism and terrorism in Chechnya, the West more or less turned a blind eye.

The West’s failure was not that it wasn’t “tough enough” when the time came, but that it simply didn’t care enough to have any sense of when the time was coming in the first place, to say nothing of what it would mean. Now we know.

Asmus isn’t arguing that the West could have (or should have) intervened in Georgia. He’s arguing that the war in Georgia should serve as a clarion call that the feeble and corrupt Russia of the Yeltsin years is long gone and that the new Russia does not appear to be interested in playing by any rulebook we find palatable.

In any case, Hastings castigates the West for its “triumphalism” and proceeds to recommend “cautious diplomacy,” whatever that means. In truth, Hastings himself probably doesn’t know. In his book, Asmus notes very clearly how the eastern expansion of NATO was coupled with a gradual bringing of Russia to the table, not as an enemy, but as a partner. A new, perhaps naive, European security paradigm emerged after the Cold War, though it clearly has not survived. But even Putin himself originally expressed no misgivings about NATO’s eastward push. The idea that the West “abused” Russia or sought to humiliate it is rooted in post-Soviet, post-superpower Russian discourses, rather than any particular course that the West has taken.

In the final analysis, Hastings’ article is a rather confused, historically shallow, and ultimately meaningless attempt at informing Western attitudes toward Russia masquerading as a book review. His ideas regarding Russian politics are of the most outdated sort — evidently he envisions Russia as little more than an object forever condemned to react to Western stimuli, and with no particular policies of its own save pan-Slavism, of which the most one can say is that it was certainly influential in 1900.

His understanding of Georgian politics, alas, is even worse, nearly approaching the level of caricature. This should come as little surprise, since the portrayal of Saakashvili as a deluded “hothead” counting on American support for his misguided military adventures is precisely the version of the man that has been promulgated in the Russian media (along with Saakashvilia-as-Hitler comparisons), from which the bulk of his arguments seem to have been drawn.

From these two tremendously flawed premises he unsurprisingly draws tremendously flawed conclusions — namely that little has changed with regards to Russia; it is a state, he says that “adheres to a historic tradition of authoritarianism and neighbourhood bullying” [emphasis added], and amounting to little more than a badger backed into a corner by an arrogant and ignorant West.  Into this he throws almost meaningless references to Iraq and neoconservative ideology, as if either of those things contributed in any significant way to renewed Russian Realpolitik or the war in Georgia. “Russia is as Russia does,” seems to be the mantra, “and whatever Russia does, it does it because of the West.”

In the long term, the economic and security threat that the new Russia poses to Europe and the United States (and one must not forget that Russian gas constitutes a major portion of Europe’s energy supply — Europe certainly doesn’t) is potentially greater than any threat we may face from fundamentalist Islam. The West, therefore, must begin to view Russia anew, not through any “triumphalist” glasses and certainly not as a polity that only has the capacity to react to decisions made in Washington or Brussels. “Careful diplomacy” is indeed necessary, but such diplomacy necessitates a new paradigm for understanding Russia, one that recognizes its resurgence while simultaneously refusing to abandon it or its neighbors to an existence outside of the norms of international law.

Russia must once again be taken on its own terms. Part of that requires that we stop cease appending the United States and Iraq to every analysis of the post-Soviet world.


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