War in Georgia—End of an Era, Beginning a New Cold War?

Nearly 20 years after it began, the largely peaceful transition of the post-Soviet space has been suddenly brought to an end by the violence that has erupted in Georgia. Where up to now conflict in the region was a localized rebellion within Russia’s territory (Chechnya), or civil war in a remote part of the former empire (Tajikistan), or a self-contained conflict over contested territory between two small former Soviet states (Armenia and Azerbaijan), the smoldering internal conflict within Georgia’s territorial borders has suddenly flared up into an all-out war between Russia and Georgia.

There are many losers in this sad and dangerous event—first and foremost are the people of Georgia, and especially of South Ossetia, with a humanitarian and refugee crisis unfolding. More broadly, however, one of the biggest potential losers is the world community at large, as the hope for a peaceful twenty-first century following a century of two world wars and a Cold War rapidly fades under the glare of new cold war rhetoric and reality.

The most obvious loser is Georgia. While Russia’s end game for the hostilities remains unclear despite President Medvedev’s announcement of a stop to Russian military action, Georgia’s military and civilian losses in life, infrastructure and business—and possibly the effective loss of territory and even political freedom—add up to an immediate disaster and probably deep long-term suffering for the Georgian people. The Georgians’ hope to integrate quickly and successfully with Europe and NATO, which seemed realistic not so long ago, has now been at best set far back. Whatever the failures of leadership in recent years in Georgia and possible mistakes in judgment by Georgia’s government in the run-up to the war, the Georgian people do not deserve any of this. A principal objective of Western reaction must be to reduce the pain and suffering of the Georgian people in the coming months and years.

How about Russia? For now the majority of Russians will relish the apparent victory in what is presented to them as a righteous war. Russia’s leadership will expect many benefits: a compliant state at its southern border, dismembered with the loss of key provinces and disabused of its ambitions to join the EU and NATO; a surge of popular support at home; a bloody thumb in the eyes of those Western leaders who had pushed the expansion of NATO, the independence of Kosovo, missiles on Central European turf and the support for a democratic revolution and an uncompromising leader in Russia’s own backyard; and finally, the sweet irony of playing out a sick parody of recent U.S. international actions and watchwords: from support for “self-determination” and “independence” (as in Kosovo) to “regime change” (as in Iraq) and a “fight against genocide” (as in Darfur), with “unilateralism” and “exceptionalism” as the hallmark of the intervention in Georgia.

But Russia’s short-term gains may well turn into long-term losses. Its immediate neighbors in the Commonwealth of Independent States may be cowed, but also much more suspicious of Russian motives and may turn to support from other continental powers, especially a rising China. A further troublesome side effect could be lowering the threshold that currently prevents military conflict in the region, including in Azerbaijan’s breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh or over water rights in Central Asia. This can also destabilize Russia in the longer term. China, which has long defended the sanctity of national borders, will find the Russian intervention troublesome. Relations with Europe and the United States, which may impose economic and political sanctions, will be in cold storage for some time to come. The respect for Russia’s largely successful transition from the Soviet Union in the eyes of the rest of the world will be replaced by images of destruction, not only at home in Chechnya, but now also in the oppression of small and helpless neighbors.

For U.S. and European governments, Russia’s actions present difficult dilemmas. On the one hand, they must respond forcefully to provide at least minimal protection at this late stage for the welfare and independence of the Georgian people, but also so as not to seem weak before a growing Russian threat. At the same time, western powers have conflicting interests in the region: democracy and territorial integrity for Georgia and access to Caspian energy on the one hand, but also access to Russian energy and Russian support in other parts of the world. And, America’s and Europe’s ability to act is tightly circumscribed by their own military commitments elsewhere, by their weakened moral authority following their own glaring mistakes in the recent past and by their need to prevent a further and dangerous escalation of the conflict.

But perhaps the most serious question is whether the Georgia-Russian war of 2008 will mark a definitive reversal toward cold war-style antagonism. Since the second terms of the George Bush and Vladimir Putin presidencies, the cooling of relations between Russia and the United States has been palpable. “East-versus-West” had largely disappeared from the political vocabulary for the first ten years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but it has reemerged in the political debates in Moscow and Washington. The risk now is that a cold war-mentality will strengthen on both sides. In Moscow, the apparent success of its intervention in Georgia will reinforce nationalistic tendencies, while in Washington the domestic political debate in the run-up to the presidential election may well become a race to the bottom in which each candidate tries to outdo the other in promising a tougher response once elected. If both sides—Russia and the United States—follow their more reactionary voices, the world will be pushed back a long way in its search for a responsible approach to managing and controlling conflicts and cooperatively meeting the global challenges of poverty, financial instability, energy insecurity, global warming, epidemic threats and terrorism. The global community at large may well be the biggest loser from the war in Georgia.

So what’s to be done? Russia must restrain and reverse its military actions in Georgia, if it is to protect its long-term standing in the world community. The United States and Europe must make clear to Russia that business-as-usual will be suspended in trade, investment and dialogue—including the G8 and other summits—until Russia provides Georgia with a minimally acceptable degree of peace and autonomy as a prelude for multilateral negotiations over the settlement of the territorial disputes. Europe has a special responsibility at this time. Its political, economic and moral leverage with Russia is now greater than America’s. Europe must use this leverage with a unified purpose and voice.

At the same time, western members of the G8 must make clear that they are ready to enter into serious discussions with other major emerging powers about more broadly sharing global rights and responsibilities. Enlarging the G8, improving representation at international institutions, and reinvigorating a United Nations to more effectively provide peacekeeping services in many contested hot spots of the globe will help balance and restrain an aggressive Russia. More generally, the tone of this dialogue must not revert to cold-war rhetoric and instead should find a constructive way to engage Russia’s leaders even as the tough actions are taken to gain Russia’s attention and constructive reaction.