The killing of Georgia


“But NATO will be no use to anyone [if] it has already squandered its credibility by promising soldiers it can’t spare to countries that aren’t members.”

Then we are agreed. Paul Wells is adamant that we should not make promises we can’t keep. And I am equally adamant that we should not keep promises we haven’t made.

Which makes it a little odd that my friend spends so much time and wordage rubbishing an idea that no one, to my knowledge, has suggested: namely, that we should send NATO troops, now, to fight the Russians in Georgia. Such a course of action might — or might not — be entailed if Georgia were a member of NATO. But Georgia is not a member of NATO. The question is whether Georgia ought to be a member of NATO. I am for it. Wells is against it (or so far as he is for it, only for those bits of Georgia that Russia is content it should have).

Wells is for treating each instance of real or potential Russian aggression as a separate and discrete event (“not everything can be a test of Western will”). I would be, too, if I thought it were possible. But they are linked, inescapably — because Russia’s actions in any particular event are in part determined by ours, or rather by expectations of ours, and because its expectations of what we will do next time are shaped by what we did last time. What we do now in Georgia, therefore, is critical to what we may have to do later somewhere else — just as the decisions facing us in Georgia today are in part a result of what we did or did not do about Georgia in the past.

The proposition advanced here is that granting the ex-Soviet states bordering Russia the NATO membership they seek makes war less likely, not more. It seems to me we have tested the contrary thesis already. When Georgia and Ukraine were rebuffed at this year’s NATO summit in Bucharest — at least for the time being — it was largely out of fear that admitting them would provoke Russia into doing something rash. So we didn’t, and instead emboldened Russia to do the same. 

If denying NATO’s protections to these states invited attack, perhaps extending them would deter it. I entirely agree that it would shred NATO’s credibility to make promises and not keep them. But it does scarcely less harm to shrink from making promises for fear of being obliged to keep them. Either way, the message conveyed is weakness.

Nevertheless, what’s done is done, and what’s not done is not done. Georgia is not, as yet, a NATO member, and we can’t very well retroactively draw a line in the sand, committing troops to a battle the Georgians were never promised and of which the Russians were never warned. More to the point, it’s not clear we need to — this time. Between doing nothing — the Wells Plan — and all-out war (even a “nuclear exchange”!), which Wells seems to suggest is the only real alternative, there are surely a range of options.

Some of these have already been explored elsewhere: kicking Russia out of the G-8, denying it membership in the World Trade Organization, cancelling joint military exercises, even boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics. Wells scoffs at the show of solidarity by the leaders of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states, all of whom rushed to Tbilisi to stand beside Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, since “standing on a platform is all Saakashvili’s colleagues did.“ Whoops. In fact Poland immediately signed an agreement to host American missile interceptors on its soil, along with an unusual country-to-country mutual defence pact. Ukraine slapped restrictions on the Russian fleet’s operations in its waters, later offering to make available  its missile-detection systems for NATO use. Estonia provided Georgia with expertise in resisting Russian cyber-attacks on its internet service. And so on. 

Is it enough? Probably not to expel Russian troops altogether, but possibly enough to persuade them to retreat to the status quo ex ante as of August 7,  when Russian “peacekeepers” were still confined to the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, before they poured into the rest of Georgia. The Russians are not entirely impervious to world opinion, nor is the rest of the world wholly without leverage over them. 

But these cards, by their nature, can only be played once. If we are to deter future Russian fits of aggression, we need to draw some very clear lines. The point is not merely to contain Russia, but to defend the sovereign right of the democracies on its doorstep to determine their own futures, to strike their own alliances, to set their own foreign policies: precisely what Russia was trying to prevent in Georgia, and precisely what it must not be allowed to decide. There can be no Soviet-style “spheres of influence” in Europe, no “Finlandization.” 

All of which points to putting Georgia and Ukraine on the fast track to NATO membership — to punish Russia for its current misbehaviour, yes, but more important to deter it from doing the same again. Wells finds this “novel,” asking “if somebody could produce the list of all the countries in the world that NATO is supposed to annex if somebody does something bad to them.” Not me, but how about we start with the countries that have formally applied to join, that have demonstrated their willingness to provide for the common defence, and that have already been conditionally approved for membership. That list would include, um, Georgia and Ukraine. 

The idea is hardly novel: I note, for example, the Economist has lately endorsed it (“Russia’s incursion should not delay plans to let Ukraine and Georgia into NATO…. The worst outcome of this war would be for the West to allow Russia a veto over any sovereign country’s membership of either NATO or the EU.”) So, reportedly, will NATO foreign ministers, at their meeting in Brussels on Tuesday. Indeed, so has Germany — whose earlier hesitancy had so influenced my friend’s thinking.

I come back to a point I made in an earlier post. When we sneer at Saakashvili’s “recklessness,” when we scold the West for having “encouraged” him, what we are really saying is: They had it coming. How dare Georgia assert its internationally recognized sovereignty over its own territory? Did it really think it could get away with provoking Russia in this way? Does it not know that it is a vassal state — and do its Western sympathizers not understand that it must remain so? Not because it is just, not because it is right, but simply because Russia is more powerful, or at any rate more willing to shed blood, than we are. As Wells writes, “a direct Russian confrontation with NATO will have only two possible outcomes: war or pre-emptive retreat.” He means on our side: the possibility of a third outcome, that Russia might back down, does not seem to arise.

Suppose that were true. It’s not — Russia is not so powerful as all that — but suppose it were. Could not exactly the same thing have been said of, say, the Prague Spring? Wasn’t that a futile gesture? Could the Czechs have imagined that the Soviets would permit it — a democracy on their doorstep? Wasn’t it predictable that the tanks would roll? Shouldn’t someone have told them not to try? 

But is it not glorious that they did? And did they not win, in the end?


The killing of Georgia

  1. I’m no historian, but linking the events in 1968 to the collapse of the bankrupt Soviet Union in 1989 seems to be quite a bit of a stretch.

    Also, wouldn’t it be more correct to refer to those 1968 citizens as Czechoslovakians – the partition into the Czech Republic and Slovakia not occuring until 1993 by peaceful referendum?

    One last comment. The Economist article you linked to also states: “The EU should work harder at reducing its dependence on Russian energy imports and improving internal energy connections—and EU countries should stop striking bilateral deals with Russia.”

    Neither you nor Wells discuss at any length the geopolitics of energy security, providing, to this reader at least, more of an academic argument- perhaps Wells’ rebuttal may cover off this issue in greater depth.

  2. “When we sneer at Saakashvili’s recklessness,”…what we are really saying is: They had it coming…Did it really think it could get away with provoking Russia in this way?”

    Well, yeah, that would be what we’re asking. Russian troops had been in South Ossetia since about 1995 when Georgia attempted to expel them on August 7, resulting in the current mess (and Georgia was part of the Russian empire/Soviet Union from about 1785 to 1995, for whatever that says about perceptions of its territorial integrity/sovereignty). And Georgia is in a region where Russia needs to project its strength for its own territorial integrity (did anyone ever tell Putin we don’t agree that his battle against the Chechens is of a piece with the US war on terror?).

    So, why would we think Georgia could/should get away with provoking Russia in this way? It’s a more serious question than you allow. Especially if Saakashvili acted out of concerns for his upcoming re-election…

    Also, you suggest NATO should not “shrink from making promises for fear of being obliged to keep them” because that would convey weakness. Then you point out that, although the NATO charter says that “an armed attack against one…them…shall be considered an attack against them all”, Canada and its NATO allies needn’t respond militarily to a Russian attack. But, wouldn’t not responding militarily convey, um, the same weakness? And maybe raise questions about which attacks NATO would respond to militarily?

  3. I’m still confused. Are we willing to defend Ukraine or not? If not, let’s not; if so, let’s. They key thing, as Messrs. Wells & Coyne concur, is not coordinate words & deeds. Seems we have a few options:

    a) send troops to Georgia and re-invade Abkhazia against several Chechen-hardened Russian divisions with nearby air support – impracticable/counterproductive;

    b) send troops to Georgia to “patrol” the streets of Tblisi & neighbouring fortifications;

    c) abandon Georgia to a puppet pro-Russian leader, while expressing solidarity with Poland and the Baltic states and deploying troops to Ukraine;

    d) abandon Georgia, show solidarity with Poland and the Baltic, and leave Ukraine to flap in the wind;

    e) abandon Georgia, abandon Poland & the Baltic, and leave Ukraine to flap.

    The Russians respect troops on the ground; trying to intimidate them by boycotting 2014, barring entry to WTO, etc., will only give them a good laugh.

  4. Forgive me if this sounds naive, but the last time I checked, wasn’t it called the North ATLANTIC Treaty Orginization?

    I understand the desire to spread NATO membership further and further east, contain Russia, etc, and that containing the USSR was NATO’s original raison-d’être. But seriously, has anyone checked a map? Georgia is pretty far from the North Atlantic. Before you know it, Iraq and Afghanistan will be lobbying for NATO membership, and we’ll aruge that it’s a good idea in order to contain Iran.

    I know that might sound slightly like Mr. Wells’ argument. However, I believe that you, Mr. Coyne, are correct in asserting that something must be done. I’m just wondering where we stop with handing out “Free Protection” cards to states who have little to offer in return. NATO needs borders.

  5. Alex, I agree.

    It strikes me that expanding NATO to Russia’s borders is just the modern manifestation of the cold war era Domino Theory.

  6. I’m surprised noone has suggested that France made a mistake when they didn’t invade Quebec in order to halt Trudeau’s aggression against ethnic French citizens.

  7. Dot,

    It seems to me that refusing to expand NATO to Russia’s borders (to democratic countries that are CLAMOURING for membership)is just an implicit acknowledgement that those countries simply aren’t free and independent, and that they really are just vassal states of the Soviet (sorry, Russian) Empire, that can PLAY at independence all they like but aren’t actually allowed to make sovereign decisions about their own affairs without permission from the “motherland”.

    One wonders why the West bothered to help these people win their freedom if we’re just going to let them be reabsorbed into a de facto empire the first time Russia gets a strong man back at the helm (even if their strongman is actually pulling the strings from (slightly) behind the scenes).

    As for the “Domino Theory” I’m not sure about that comparison. Somehow, I think deciding to allow democratic nations like Ukraine and Georgia to exercise their sovereignty by voluntarily joining a defensive alliance is just a BIT different from going to war with Viet Nam.

  8. Notwithstanding the relative merits of any of the other levers, don’t dismiss a 2014 boycott as a useless instrument. It simply has to be done right: massive, soon and irreversible (and not lead by Russia’s old antagonist, the US).

    So…any (or all) of the nine NATO members who were once involuntary allies of the old Soviet Union would propose a boycott that would include all 26 members of NATO. Once ratified, NATO members who are also members of the EU would make the same proposal in that organization. There are currently 6 EU members not part of NATO making it a 32 country boycott.

    The boycott issue could be put on the agenda of the G7, Commonwealth, Francophonie etc. but even if it got no further than EU/ NATO the damage would be done. Broadcast and sponsorship rights would have all the value of a Nortel share, costing the Russians billions. Pressure would build on the IOC to somehow move the games.

    It has to happen before broadcast and sponsorship deals are in place and, theoretically, with enough time to move or hold alternate competitions and it can’t be something that Russia can plead, promise or bully its way out of. The message is “These games are gone, behave now and there’s something to be gained in the future.”

    Oh yeah, that old argument about the Olympics being above politics…Please, since when? Every government, and dictators in particular, throw millions (now billions) at the Olympics to buy prestige and popularity. Do you think Russia begged to host out of a concern for mankind?

    FINAL thought: If NATO can’t even orgnize an Olympic boycott at least we will have a clear indication of its value as a militray alliance!

  9. LKO,
    I don’t recall the west being particularly helpful in freeing Georgia, Ukraine et al. The Soviet Union fell apart and there they were. Also, I don’t think anyone has lifted a finger for the benighted residents of Belarus or some of the *stans which are still effective tyrannies.

  10. LKO,

    You may know better than I, but apart from opposing having NATO on its doorstep, can you give me concrete examples of how Georgia and the Ukraine aren’t actually allowed to make sovereign decisions about their own affairs without permission from the “motherland”. ?

    Both are democracies having elected their leaders (maybe not Russia’s choice of candidates), both have been weaned off of subsidized (ie below world price) energy supplies, and as far as I know, have open economies, are members of the UN etc.

    Russia is doing quite fine, thank you very much, in regaining world power and influence economically through companies like Gazprom and Basic Element (Oleg Deripaska – oligarch – see from page of today’s G&M ROB).

    This is not unlike how China is returning to its former glory, through economic integration with the rest of the world, not through expanding its influence militarily.

    So, where’s the evidence that it is on the path to reverting to military/geographic instead of economic expansion?

    If not, then one would argue expanding NATO to its borders could be perceived not as a “defensive” move, but rather an offensive one.

  11. Longer answer to come, of course, but to LKO and others: is it germane that most citizens of Ukraine don’t want to join NATO?


    I’m actually not sure public opinion should be a deal-breaker here. Legitimately elected governments make decisions, polls don’t. But on a decision as momentous as this, is public opinion simply negligible?

  12. It might be helpful to clarify what these countries would get from NATO membership. Andrew has suggested that membership wouldn’t guarantee military support in the event of an attack. What are the other big advantages of NATO membership? How would those other advantages deter Russian intervention in any of these countries? Presumably sceptical publics in all these countries will want to know…

    Speaking of publics, TPM reports on a new Qinnipiac poll that shows McCain has a substantial edge on who voters think is best qualified to deal with the Russia crisis, 55%-27% – indeed, almost a third of Democrats, and 55% of independents, prefer McCain to Obama on Russia.

    This would be the McCain who said “we’re all Georgians now”, suggested American military intervention, then changed his mind three days later…One hopes Paul is right and public opinion will be negiigible on such a momentous decision (and so will McCain’s opinion).

  13. I’d be interested to see if the invasion of Georgia effects political opinion in Ukraine though.

    However I acknowledge that getting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO will be extremely complicated if not impossible (in Georgia because of the facts on the ground, in Ukraine because of public opinion).

    I do worry that people are grossly underestimating Putin’s long term goals here though. Let’s remember Putin’s own words:

    “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” (link)

    Personally, I’m convinced that Russia wants to re-extend their total control over their former satellite states. To undue the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Not having been a big fan of the former Soviet Union, I’m personally just not down with that.

  14. Bunnybuns,

    My favourite McCain quote isn’t the “We’re all Georgians” one, it’s his observation about Putin.

    “I looked into his eyes and saw three letters: a K, a G and a B.”

  15. Ah yes, to which Bush replied “What’s that supposed to spell?” But McCain had already moved on to say “And I learned a lot about three letter acronyms after I impacted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane – or does your article already mention that I was a POW?”

  16. Why is that that nobody wants to ask Ukrainians
    themselves whether they want to be in NATO or not? Not even the Ukrainian government, fighting
    tooth and nail the national referendum initiative on just such a question, while continuing their policy of begging for admission. Because Ukrainian people overwhelmingly reject NATO membership, that’s why. But when did the self-appointed masters of the Universe let a sovereign will of the people stand in the way of their grand plans for bringing “freedom and democracy” to the masses?
    Now they are all huffy about such a sudden appearance of a nation capable of enforcing its sovereign will over their objections. How horrible, their whole global protection racket business model is out of the window. That only
    leaves them with Hollywood as a reliable moneymaker, and those yachts and private planes do not pay for themselves. Not having to fly in business class, that’s what they are ready to fight a nuclear war for.

  17. I would agree with DOT in that there is a lack of evidence of this Russian “Aggression”.

    Georgia started the war, yes the seperatist’s in S. Ossetia may have egged them on but to me that argument is like saying a girl who dresses in skimpy clothes “gets what she deserved” when she’s assaulted. The Georgians didn’t simply move in with soldiers to keep civilian casualties down, they deliberately targeted the S. Ossetian capital with a massive artillery bombardment designed to cause as much damage as possible. Georgian PeaceKeepers turned on their Russian counterparts and murdered them not in combat but in cold blood.

    This was a Russian response to Georgian aggression and would probably mirror the U.S. textbook for a similar situation on it’s border.

    The Georgian PM should be tried as a criminal for forcing his countrymen into a conflict like this.

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