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?

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