Monday, August 11, 2008

South Ossetia today - where tomorrow?

One of the advantages of reading the economist every week is that, when a foreign policy crisis flares up in the Caucasus, you know where it's happening, and at least have a vague idea of why. Indeed, last Friday, as Russian planes invaded Georgian airspace, the new edition of the economist landed on my doormat, including a story about South Ossetia, and why Georgia was getting increasingly paranoid. It concluded that war could be a matter of days away.

Russia's actions in South Ossetia are opportunistic and self-aggrandising - classic power politics of the kind we were assured didn't happen these days. Since the wave of mini-revolutions in Russia's near abroad, the Kremlin has felt increasingly threatened by the presence, on its borders, of democratic (well relatively), pro-Western regimes. Quite what it is threatened by is something of a mystery - unless it really believes that the West is preparing military strikes against it. Be that as it may, two things should be appreciated by the West. The first is that there is little, on a practical level, it can do to assist Georgia now. That chance came and went with the stalled NATO expansion plans.

Helen Szamuely has written an excellent guest piece on Iain's site about the dangers of appeasement. Sadly, this is a case where we look back on a decade of foreign policy and identify it, post factum, as being appeasement. We are too far down the line to intervene in this directly for two reasons. The first is simply that we don't have the capacity to get into a shooting war with Russia. With troops bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO, which means principally the United States, doesn't have the men or materiel to prosecute a major land war. The second is that we don't have the will. Does anyone really want to go to war with Russia? A country that possesses nuclear weapons, and a pretty sizeable conventional capacity to go with them? Not many takers for that I'd have thought.

This sounds like a counsel of despair, and in a way it is. However, if any good is to come out of this, we must act on this as a wake-up call. Apart from offering Georgia all diplomatic help possible - which should go without saying - the West, and NATO in particular, should take steps to ensure that this can't happen again. This means a progressive embracing of Eastern European states into NATO where possible, and an increase in a European and US military presence (at the request of the state in question obviously) in areas that look threatened. Georgia is the prime example of such a threatened state. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been the targets for Russian destabilsation since the end of the Soviet era. There are others though. Trans-Dniepstra in Moldova is the other most obvious target for such Russian action - we need to ensure that we are not caught napping next time.

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Blogger James Barlow said...

Well, you did better than me. I had to look at a map to find Georgia.

10:40 pm  

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