Sending the Right Message

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Appeared in Doublethink Online

Some observers look upon Russia’s blitzkrieg battering of—and slow-motion, scorched-earth withdrawal from—Georgia with relief, thankful that NATO’s April summit stopped short of extending a formal membership invitation to the tiny former Soviet republic. In truth, that signal appears to have been the green light Vladimir Putin and his puppets had been waiting for. In return, Moscow has now sent a message of its own: Russia will do what it wants—when it wants—to the unfortunate countries on its borderlands. A simple but sobering truth flows from this unspoken message: Without the umbrella of NATO protection, no one in or near the borders of the former Soviet Union is safe.

Since the invasion, the US and its NATO allies have been trying to send stronger messages to Moscow. But with no one willing to fight for Tbilisi, let alone Gori, this has been a challenge.

The NATO foreign ministers’ communiqué of August 19, which Moscow dismissed as “empty words,” was not nearly enough.

The allies must do more than simply show Moscow that there is a price to pay for its actions, for Putin surely calculated some international condemnation. What they must do is ensure that the price is high enough to give Putin pause before his next cross-border spasm, but not so harsh as to push Russia into full-fledged revisionism, which could spark the sort of misunderstanding that leads to a direct, albeit unintended, confrontation with NATO.

This effort is complicated by several factors:

  • First, Russia owns the disputed real estate now—and has demonstrated its capacity and willingness to finish what it started in early August. The only thing worse than Russia’s seizing half of Georgia and menacing its democratically elected government is Russia’s taking all of Georgia and overthrowing its democratically elected government.
  • Second, Putin is using the Russian government to create a “fog of diplomacy” and accentuate divisions within the West, deftly deploying generals, ambassadors and Dmitry Medvedev to play a game of good cop/bad cop/worse cop.
  • Third, Russia is an energy juggernaut, supplying oil and gas to much of Europe.
  • Finally, the West has few carrots left to offer Russia, which means it has to use sticks to get Russia’s attention.

But do we really want to start pulling out the heavy lumber? Should American Marines retake South Ossetia because Georgia’s president allowed passion to overtake prudence in his reaction to Russian provocation? No. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has wisely observed, “The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia. I see no reason to change that approach today.”

Yet the above factors do mean that the West should change how it communicates with Moscow. After Georgia, the West must act and speak not through the EU’s faux foreign minister or rotating presidency, or the OSCE or the UN, but through NATO.

The Georgia crisis, Putin’s War of the 29th Olympiad, is only the latest, most lethal example that Russia is either unwilling or unable to come to grips with the post-Cold War world. But it is anything but the first:

  • In 1999, Moscow rushed troops to the Pristina airport in Kosovo to block NATO forces from deploying for peacekeeping operations.
  • Over the last eight years, Moscow has aided Iran in protecting its nuclear program with varying means, including diplomatic interference and military equipment.
  • Since 2006, Russia has fired off bellicose rhetoric at the Czech Republic and Poland for daring to act like sovereign states and discussing missile-defense cooperation with the U.S. (It’s no coincidence, despite official statements to the contrary, that the U.S. and Poland struck a deal on deployment of interceptor missiles just days after Russia’s thrust into Georgia.)
  • In 2006, Moscow shut off natural gas flowing into Ukraine in the dead of winter. A year later, it shut off of oil supplies into Europe, ostensibly to send a message to Belarus.
  • In 2007-08, Moscow blocked UN approval of Kosovo’s independence.
  • In 2007, Moscow stopped observing the CFE Treaty, which limits the number of heavy armaments in Europe, and resumed Cold War-style flights of strategic bombers.
  • From 2007-08, Russia has conducted cyber-warfare against Estonia, Lithuania and now Georgia.

In short, Moscow has carried out a series of proxy acts against the West for a decade. And it has shown little more than contempt for NATO’s efforts to promote stability and democratic government in the whole of Europe. Thus, on the military-political front, it’s time to end the charade that is the NATO-Russia Council. Given that Russia knows Georgia has a special relationship with NATO—at the 2008 NATO summit the alliance agreed that the tiny Black Sea nation would become a NATO member, someday—it’s obvious that Moscow doesn’t care about NATO structures. If the NATO-Russia Council couldn’t prevent the above litany of Russian misconduct, one wonders what it’s good for.

NATO has taken a step in this direction, promising to cease regular contacts with Moscow until its troops withdraw to pre-conflict lines—and the Russian Ministry of Defense has done likewise, informing NATO that it has halted “international military cooperation events between Russia and NATO countries until further instructions.”

This makes sense. If NATO is to be effective in the post-Georgia period, it’s best that NATO’s headquarters be free of people who would plan and launch an attack on a NATO aspirant.

On the economic-political front, it’s time to end the G-8 and return to the G-7, which was a club of liberal industrial democracies. If Russia ever met the membership criteria in the past, it certainly doesn’t today.

Beyond these punitive but passive actions, NATO needs to demonstrate in a tangible way its commitment to the sovereignty and independence of Georgia, Ukraine and the other countries on Russia’s doorstep. As NATO’s foreign ministers have said, “Georgia’s recovery, security and stability are important to the Alliance.”

  • NATO should borrow a page from its earliest chapter and conduct an ongoing airlift and sealift of all things necessary to keep Georgia free. Likewise, U.S. forces should continue to deploy to Georgia for training exercises. If Moscow truly believes that Georgia is a sovereign country, if it truly intends to return to the status quo ante, then it should find nothing provocative about this. After all, there were a thousand American troops in Georgia as recently as July. American forces have been deployed in Georgia, off and on, since 2002 (and were there during the Russian invasion). Plus, the USS Nashville and USS Porter have made port visits to Poti in recent years.
  • Washington should recruit partners to participate in humanitarian and reconstruction projects across Georgia—not including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regions Russia has swallowed. Moscow can rebuild those areas on its own.
  • To keep NATO’s secretariat busy after the NATO-Russia Council is dissolved, the alliance should convene its defense ministers monthly to coordinate and monitor the rebuilding process, issue progress reports on the security situation and fortify consultative structures between NATO and its aspirants. The framework for this was put in place by the foreign ministers, who announced the formation of a NATO-Georgia Commission “to assess the damage caused by the military action and to help restore critical services necessary for normal public life and economic activity.”
  • Speaking of aspirants, Washington should continue to press NATO on Georgian and Ukrainian membership, although their membership bids seem less likely today than during the NATO Summit in April. The next opportunity is December.

Whether or not President George W. Bush sets these concrete responses in place, his successor will have to deal with Putin’s resurgent Russia. Interestingly, the aforementioned policies would seem to fit into either Senator John McCain’s or Senator Barack Obama’s framework.

For McCain, who blasted “Moscow’s path of violent aggression” and suggested “severe, long-term negative consequences,” these proposals seem sufficiently tough. And for Obama, who has called for “aggressive diplomatic action” and has argued that “the United States and Europe must review our multilateral and bilateral arrangements with Russia in light of its actions,” they seem sufficiently multilateral.

The unfortunate lesson of this incident is that the West was not ready to come to Georgia’s defense—in other words, that Georgia is not the same as Germany. But that should have been obvious when key NATO governments rebuffed Washington’s push to invite Georgia into the alliance.

Moscow certainly got that message. It’s important that NATO’s next message be stronger and clearer.

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