Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 16:08 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 16:08 | SYDNEY

Georgia on his mind


Andrew Shearer

14 August 2008 16:43

It's interesting that until now no-one here at The Interpreter has blogged on the events of the last week in Georgia. Perhaps Australians are distracted by happier events in the Beijing Olympic pool. With a couple of honourable exceptions our media certainly haven’t risen above their normal parochialism.

Parallels with Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland are overdrawn. But it seems to me Russia’s use of force outside its own borders for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union is a pretty significant event and tells us a few interesting things about the global geopolitical environment. I don’t claim to be an expert on the Caucasus, but I’ll chance my arm on a few tentative conclusions:

  • Georgia’s President Saakashvili miscalculated badly and as a result has jeopardised not only his democratically elected, pro-Western government but also his country’s future.
  • It is equally clear that Saakashvili’s folly in sending his troops into South Ossetia gave Putin the pretext he needed to execute – with characteristic calculation, ruthlessness and proficiency – a plan he intended all along.
  • Putin’s motive is naked and old-fashioned Russian revanchism: he has coolly and deliberately invaded a country closely aligned to the US with a view to rolling back the ‘colour revolutions’ and Western influence from Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence; what’s more, he looks like getting away with it at hardly any cost.
  • As no doubt intended, the Georgian intervention must have sent an unseasonable chill through Ukraine, the Baltics and even Poland.
  • Geopolitics is back, and so is Russia: fuelled by petro dollars and with coffers overflowing with foreign currency, Putin is deliberately tapping Russian nationalism and humiliation to insist that Moscow’s voice is once more heard — and heeded – on the world stage.
  • A related point is that the way the international economy now works — with competition for food, resources and energy driving volatile movements in prices — produces shifts in the global distribution of power that are remarkably rapid by historical standards: Russia was pretty much down and out in the early 1990s (nuclear weapons aside); within two decades it appears back as a global spoiler, if not a superpower (the corollary, of course, is that Russia’s current resurgence may prove only as robust as the price of energy).
  • As I observed in my previous post, this Russian challenge is geopolitical but also ideological. It potentially poses a major challenge to the liberal international order – particularly if China is a tacit partner in it.
  • This dispute can only complicate Western efforts to enlist Russia’s support for preventing Iran getting nuclear weapons, thereby making it more likely that Israel or the US will resort to military force.
  • The West is struggling for an effective response: the US is distracted by the Middle East, its presidential campaign and a hankering to turn its back on troublesome international confrontation and conflict; Europe is cowed by Putin’s coercive energy diplomacy, and divided; NATO’s future direction is clouded; and there are few real levers on Russia’s conduct.
  • I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, but much of the Western commentariat can’t help reversing the onus of blame: that villain-for-all occasions George Bush forced Russia into its assault by recklessly supporting NATO expansion and missile defence (never mind if central European democracies support NATO membership or that Moscow knows full well that missile defence poses no risk to its security).
  • Meanwhile, China gets to look like the authoritarian ‘good cop’ as it works to extract every drop of PR value from the Olympics.
  • Finally, Senator McCain’s unfashionably hard-headed appraisal of Russia suddenly looks on the money – which could bolster his extensive lead over Senator Obama on national security issues.