Here's the problem: When push comes to shove--and the Russians clearly mean to shove--the West can't do anything substantive militarily for Georgia, or the Ukraine, or Armenia. For the past fifteen years, the West has pursued a largely successful policy of slow encirclement of a defenseless Russia, supporting Democratic movements, first in the former Warsaw pact countries and more recently in the former Soviet Republics. With a weak Russia, the strategy worked.
But Russia is no longer weak.
We spend so much time worrying about transferring oil wealth to hostile Islamic countries that we tend to forget that Russia has been getting rich on oil as well. That wealth has been put to good use, modernizing and expanding the Russian military.
But it gets worse. The special wrinkle in the Russian oil boom is that Europe built its energy infrastructure to be completely dependent on oil and gas from Russia. Putin has used this dependency to blackmail Europe into acquiescing to all manner of Russian power plays. Russia's support for Iran, its constant provocations of the Ukraine, and now the Georgian mess, have been the result of a steady escalation in the exercise of Russian oil power.
So we're at a critical moment. Open warfare between the West and Russia is as unthinkable today as it was at the height of the Cold War. But a new, Not-Quite-Cold War has begun. Robert Kagan seems to have it about right:
Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia's attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even -- though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities -- the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial. The next president had better be ready.So what can the West do? There are short-term and long-term answers to this question.
The short-term answers range from unsatisfying to dangerous:
- We can take the Obama approach and accept a vastly weakened Georgia while pursuing a careful, methodical approach to limiting Russia's soft power. The problem with this is that Russia has as little regard for Western soft power as Iran does, and for the same reason. As long as Europe needs Russian oil and gas, Russia can get away with almost anything.
- We can take the Bush approach and threaten a deterioration in US-Russian relations. This is not inconsequential for Russia but it's painful to US interests as well. Western business interests in Russia will suffer more than Russia will.
- We can rush aid to Georgia, allowing them to build up their military to face future Russian onslaughts. This is tinged with real danger. Russia may attempt to interdict such aid and the prospect of a serious military incident can't be ignore.
- Finally, we can fast-track NATO membership for Georgia, the Ukraine, and Armenia. This is extraordinarily dangerous. It will almost certainly result in Russia squeezing Europe over oil and gas. And, if that doesn't get Europe to back off, we're left with the prospect of defending these states against future Russian attacks. Such a strategy would represent a true line in the sand for Russia. Russia will fight back, first with economic power, but military action can't be ruled out.
(A brief aside: I guess by favoring this, I'm now more with the McCain position than the Obama position. I overestimated the strength of Russia legal case, especially since the UN is utterly inconsequential in this matter. I continue to think that it'll be a cold day in hell when non-Russian peacekeepers are stationed in either South Ossetia or Abkhazia but it's increasingly clear that this can't go unanswered. Obama's position is pretty weak tea. Even the Bush Administration has at least threatened a deterioration in relations. That leaves the door open for further action. Obama's position has no such flexibility.)
Longer term, the same old prescription applies: We need a world where oil wealth is dramatically reduced. But notice that this whole affair points up the futility of energy solutions that can apply only to the domestic US. So, while wind or enhanced offshore drilling are nice medium-term solutions, they aren't going to relieve Europe from the threat of Russian energy blackmail. Only reliable alternative energy sources will do that and, given Europe's extreme northerly lattitude, that pretty much leaves nukes and batteries.
Before the recent crisis, I'd always assumed that solving the energy problem in the US, China, and India would take enough pressure off the world oil market that Europe would be in good shape. I'm less sanguine about that now. This may result in more restrictions on the energy solution than I'd previously thought.
UPDATE: Should've read all the WaPo columns before writing this. This, from Asmus and Holbrooke, is pretty much dead-on:
What can we do? First, Georgia deserves our solidarity and support. (Georgia has supported us; its more than 2,000 troops are the third-largest contingent in Iraq -- understandably those troops are being recalled.) We must get the fighting stopped and preserve Georgia's territorial integrity within its current international border. As soon as hostilities cease, there should be a major, coordinated transatlantic effort to help Tbilisi rebuild and recover.
Second, we should not pretend that Russia is a neutral peacekeeper in conflicts on its borders. Russia is part of the problem, not the solution. For too long, Moscow has used existing international mandates to pursue neo-imperial policies. We must disavow these mandates and insist on truly neutral international forces, under the United Nations, to monitor a future cease-fire and to mediate.
Third, we need to counter Russian pressure on its neighbors, especially Ukraine -- most likely the next target in Moscow's efforts to create a new sphere of hegemony. The United States and the European Union must be clear that Ukraine and Georgia will not be condemned to some kind of gray zone.
Finally, the United States and the European Union must make clear that this kind of aggression will affect our relations and Russia's standing in the West. While Western military intervention in Georgia is out of the question -- and no one wants a 21st-century version of the Cold War -- Moscow's actions cannot be ignored. There is a vast array of political, economic and other areas in which Russia's role and standing will have to be reexamined. Moscow must also be put on notice that its own prestige project -- the Sochi Olympics -- will be affected by its behavior.