Russian military operations against Georgia created the most serious crisis in that region since the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Moscow has defined Georgia’s European aspirations as a threat to Russian interests. At stake is more than crisis in the Caucasus – but also whether Russia and the West can share a core base of values to combat terrorism, stop proliferation, and promote energy security. The United States cannot meet this test alone; it must mobilize the international community.
The devastation in Georgia and South Ossetia make clear one point: this tragedy will not easily be put behind. Whatever Georgia’s grievances, Tbilisi plainly miscalculated. It should have anticipated that sending its forces into South Ossetia would trigger a massive Russian response. Now Georgia faces the intense ire among the people it hoped to court.
Russia’s response – striking by air and land into undisputed Georgian territory and deploying troops into another breakaway region, Abkhazia – violated international law and made clear this is not just about South Ossetia. Georgia’s independent foreign policy has angered Moscow, which has sought for years to re-build influence in the post-Soviet space. And it has become personal. Russian Prime Minister Putin, in particular, despises Georgian President Saakashvili and wants to bring him down.
This crisis comes when Washington is preoccupied, Russia is energy-rich and U.S.-Russian relations are strained. Washington, NATO allies and the European Union must stay on the same page when dealing with Moscow – whether in bilateral contacts with Russia or multilateral fora such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or UN Security Council. The Kremlin will happily exploit any Western splits. Here are ten points for a way forward.
First, Washington and the EU must sustain personal and high-level engagement with Putin, Russian President Medvedev and Saakashvili. This conflict is tragically personal. Without personal engagement each actor will be swayed by anger. Sarkozy, French Foreign Minister Kouchner, Finnish Foreign Minister (and OSCE Chairman) Stubb, Secretary Rice and EU High Representative Solana must stay involved.
Second, Washington will need to continue to reinforce European efforts to sustain the ceasefire completed on August 17. The United States cannot serve as an honest broker; Moscow sees Washington as too close to Georgia and unacceptable as a mediator. Paris has the hotline now with Moscow. Washington’s pressures have to be carefully in sync.
Third, the UN and OSCE should expand their observers on the ground to help make the parties accountable. Moscow and Tbilisi offer wildly diverging narratives as to what is going on. The international community needs eyes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and elsewhere in Georgia to establish ground truth. The OSCE or UN Security Council should organize the observers, and the UNSC should approve the mission. Russia obsessively calls for respect for the UN – it should now respect its rhetoric.
Fourth, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon should use the authorities under longstanding General Assembly Resolution 46/182 to deploy a humanitarian planning mission to South Ossetia and undisputed Georgia. By most accounts, over 100,000 have been displaced. If Russia and Georgia want to stem the human suffering and begin to rebuild, they should accept and guarantee safety to humanitarian workers. Such a UN Mission does not need Security Council approval.
Fifth, the G-7 should make clear that it wants Russia as a partner, but that means a partner that does not assault small neighboring states. Secretary Rice’s August 11 conference call to consult with G-7 foreign ministers was a smart move, clearly signaling that Russian actions could put its seat at the G-8 table at risk.
Sixth, the West should build a coalition of nations around common respect for international borders. Washington should engage China, which shares a long border with Russia and cannot be happy about Russian military actions. Beijing, moreover, holds a veto on the UN Security Council. The U.S. government should talk to the Central Asian states as well; Russia’s pummeling of Georgia must have set off alarm bells in their capitals.
Seventh, NATO should send a clear message about the desires of Georgia (and Ukraine) to ultimately enter the Alliance. NATO should ask itself what it means if Russia concludes that its tactics have won itself a veto over decisions on NATO membership. NATO should act on the merits of the case, and Russia should know that NATO is not deterred. Georgia (and Ukraine) should know that acceptance is not automatic.
Eighth, Saakashvili, and every Georgian, should register that Georgia needs more than the assurances of good will from its friends. It needs an alliance. Now is the time to galvanize Georgian democracy, free the Georgian press, and meet the criteria for a NATO membership action plan.
Ninth, the United States, EU and NATO should reassure Ukraine, whose European desires also draw Moscow’s ire. Ukraine should reduce its vulnerabilities to Russian pressure by paying debts on time, enhancing its energy security, and ending the infighting between the president and prime minister. Now is not the time for a divided government in Kyiv.
Tenth, France (acting as EU president) should seek the UN Security Council’s support to host within three months negotiations with Georgians and South Ossetians and, in parallel, with Georgians and Abkhazians to settle these conflicts. The status quo is not sustainable. Yes, it is a long shot, but the alternative is two flashpoints that could very quickly trigger a new conflict.