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A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West By Ronald D. Asmus
Palgrave MacMillan, 272 Pages Reviewed by James Kirchick
O CURRENT national leader possesses more cunning than Vladimir Putin. Even his present position as Russia’s prime minister and putative second-in-command allows for a degree of strategic cover that the former president has been keen to exploit. Indeed, if we go as far as to accept the unlikely premise that the Machiavellian Russian nationalist is in fact subordinate to current President Dmitri Medvedev, we still must acknowledge that we are stuck with the Kremlin that Putin built. Putin’s sharp rise (and dubious abdication) has been nearly untainted by failure. What the Obama administration now touts as a policy “reset” is, from the Russian view, merely the West’s rightful acknowledgement of Moscow’s power and inﬂuence. Those trying to pinpoint exactly when and how Putin’s vision of a revanchist Russia went kinetic would do well to recall the 1999 attack on Chechnya. But, as
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to the New Republic.
Ron Asmus’s new book, A Little War that Shook the World, details, muscular Putinism was ﬁrst tested outside the borders of the Russian Federation with the invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008. Asmus, a high-ranking State Department ofﬁcial in the Clinton administration, argues that “this was a war that was aimed not only at Georgia but at Washington, NATO, and the West more generally.” In this analysis, popular debates about alleged Georgian provocations or the psychological stability of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili distract from what was, and remains, the fundamental issue: will Russia respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and allow them to make their own decisions about alliances? There is a concomitant question of no less importance: how will Europe and the broader West choose to respond to Russian action? If the 2008 conﬂict with Georgia is any indication, the answer is “poorly.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western leaders inscribed what was to become the “cardinal rule” of post–Cold War Europe. The 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe asserted that the continent’s borders would no longer be decided by force. This proposition undoubtedly reﬂected an appealing sentiment. But while the newly independent, post-Soviet states expressed a nearunanimous desire to “go west,” in Asmus’s words, a resentful and
spurned Russia was transmogrifying into the neo-imperialist power it has since become. And Western governments, rather than confront this disturbing turn early and head on, were instead seduced by faulty arguments about the inﬂated importance of Russia’s role in the world. Two separatist Georgian territories, whose contested status was one of the residues of the Soviet Union’s collapse, were targeted by Russia long before the 2008 invasion. Russian nationalists consider Georgian sovereignty to be less sacrosanct than that of almost any other former Soviet state, due in part to the Georgian origins of many Russian leaders, including Josef Stalin. It is a bias that goes back to the annexation of the country in 1921, when the Bolsheviks crushed a nascent independent Georgian republic. At the end of the Cold War, the tiny enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been absorbed into Georgia. While the territories are mostly populated by ethnic Georgians, the local minorities speak their own languages and support a nominal independence that would in actuality mean vassalage to Russia. South Ossetian separatists resisted the creation of an independent Georgia by launching a civil war. Fighting ended temporarily in 1992, with Georgia maintaining control of the province but granting it wide-ranging autonomy and allowing in a small contingent of Russian peacekeepers. Conﬂict erupted again in 2004 before a fragile cease-ﬁre was reached later in the same year. While the presence of Russian troops in territory recognized internationally as Georgian might have seemed fairly innocuous during the liberalizing reign of Boris Yeltsin from 1991 to 1999, it proved to be a major force
representatives of the member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered in Bucharest. Partisans in the Russian-Georgia conﬂict have debated endlessly about which side is chieﬂy responsible for sparking the August 2008 war. But the NATO leadership nonetheless announced that membership for the two post-Soviet nations would be a long-term goal. an understanding of the external threats to their preservation. Critics of American policy toward Russia say that the United States “excluded” and “encircled” Russia during the post–Cold War period of NATO expansion. The garrisoning of Russian soldiers and materiel in Georgia represented. and a commitment to building and equipping the militaries needed to defend them. A Little War that Shook the World aptly identiﬁes both the tactical and conceptual mistakes that precipitated the war. Asmus admits that formally initiating the NATO membership process for Georgia and Ukraine two years ago would not have been enough to dissuade the Russians from acting aggressively. If an unwillingness to defend the “cardinal rule” of post–Cold War Europe with anything other than diplomatic complaints becomes the norm. troop deployments. ﬁnding fault with a West that was asleep at the wheel—ignoring clear signs of destabilization and failing to take preventive measures—and a Russia outraged at another former satellite’s westward aspirations. “The only deterrent to Russia. Such claims have always been too solicitous toward Kremlin paranoia. he is less convincing about how it could have been averted. and has increased its military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since this book has been published. Asmus marshals evidence of his own that convincingly shows that the Georgian govern- ment of President Saakashvili had little choice but to attack the Ossetian separatist militias. in Asmus’s words. 2008. unfroze them? As Asmus tells it. Under such conditions. Both have presented evidence of aerial bombardments. Russia formally recognizes them as independent republics. it was NATO. those nations must share a belief in spreading these values eastward. the movements of tank columns. that what was needed to stop the invasion of Georgia was something deeper: a more resilient alliance itself. The Bucharest summit exposed the divide between those nations that wanted to expand the alliance (the United States and the countries of Eastern Europe) and those nations wary of doing anything that might raise the Kremlin’s ire. and these agreements all bear the signature of the President of the Russian Federation. Tensions between Russia and Georgia remain high. the alliance decided against welcoming Georgia and Ukraine into the fold. which were being reinforced by the steady buildup of Russian troops. That alliance must be composed of nations fully appreciative of the “shared values” about which one hears at every transat- lantic gathering. But if Asmus is correct in his assessment of the war’s importance. the “original sin” of the “frozen conﬂicts. However the Russians interpreted the Bucharest summit.” But given the post-martial attitude of many Europeans and the increasingly widespread belief that Russia does indeed deserve to have what Putin calls spheres of “privileged interests” in the former Soviet space. Moreover. According to Asmus. “The West never came close to convincing Moscow to return to the political or military status quo ante. Georgia inevitably became the “whipping boy for Russian complaints and resentments that had been building for years.” Asmus writes. most notably Germany. Russian assertiveness will no longer seem so world-shaking. to decide whether to invite Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. “would have been a uniﬁed and powerful signal of NATO commitment that enlargement was indeed inevitable and that trying to stop it would have real consequences. Moreover. On April 2.q Politics & Ideas : July/August 2010 106 . they began to beef up their “peacekeeping” contingents in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. it will most likely be Vladimir Putin whom history remembers as the initiator of a Russian reset.” Asmus writes. this half-measure led to the Russian invasion of Georgia four months later. Romania. Debate was tense. and the like. Russia remains in violation of the cease-ﬁre negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.” as Asmus writes. it has not retreated to the pre-invasion borders. then.” The truth is that under the leadership of the exuberantly pro-Western Saakashvili.” What.of instability once Vladimir Putin succeeded him and began moving Russia back onto an authoritarian path. Russia made headlines by forging a deal to control Ukraine’s Crimean naval base through 2042. it’s unclear how much the NATO alliance is even worth these days. it is indisputable that just two weeks later. and the possibility of another war is very much a reality. Asmus points out that “Russia was a full partner to and participant in these [post–Cold War] negotiations. all indicating that one country ought to be held legally responsible for initiating the war. Ultimately.
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