A great deal of ink has been spilled over the last month about the proximate causes of the fighting in the Caucasus. Abkhaz, Georgians, Ossetians and Russians have all presented conflicting accounts of who fired first—with timelines that stretch back to the 18th century. Meanwhile, the debate in the West has centered over whether the efforts to enlarge NATO to Russia’s doorstep were foolhardy and provocative, or timely and essential for the preservation of the Euro-Atlantic community.
But even if the Georgian crisis had not occurred, something was bound to happen. Two separate—and unrelated—events that occurred in 2003 set in motion a series of developments that, because they were left unaddressed, help to explain why Russia decided to draw a line in the sand and why NATO’s response has been relatively anemic. Even now, the Western alliance seems unable and unwilling to undertake the frank conversation needed—to define exactly what NATO is supposed to be doing; and in so doing is setting itself up for further failures.
From the Russian side, the road to Georgia began in earnest on October 26, 2003. That was the day Russian president Vladimir Putin was supposed to fly to the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova to sign an agreement designed to end the “frozen conflict” between the central government in Chisinau and the breakaway region of Transdnistria. The memorandum, which had been drafted by Putin’s special envoy Dmitry Kozak, provided for the preservation of Moldova’s territorial integrity but would give the separatist region a great deal of autonomy, by transforming the country into a federation. In practical terms, it meant that the pro-Western aspirations of the central government would now be balanced by the pro-Russia bent of the Transdnistrians. The opening point of the so-called “Kozak memorandum” was that the new federal state would be both neutral and demilitarized. Or, to put it another way, Moldova would be “lost” to the West.
At midnight, Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin contacted Putin to tell him that the deal was off. According to Russian political commentator Alexey Pushkov wrote in The National Interest last year:
As the story goes in Moscow, Voronin came under strong pressure from Javier Solana, the EU foreign-policy commissar, not to sign the deal. According to other sources, Voronin allegedly also had a phone conversation with Colin Powell, then the U.S. secretary of state. The message was clear: The West would not be happy if Voronin signed the Kozak memorandum. Later, U.S. diplomats denied that there had ever been a conversation between Voronin and Powell. Nonetheless, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, did confirm to me that Washington had opposed Voronin’s signing the document.
U.S. and European officials vigorously dispute this account, but this is the prevailing view that was believed not only by the Kremlin, but in other capitals of the post-Soviet space. Both Moscow and a number of Western-oriented governments, especially in Ukraine and Georgia, concluded that NATO rejected the idea that there should be a neutral “buffer” zone between Russian and Western interests. Moreover, both the Russians—as well as their neighbors—assumed that the West was playing for keeps—and this was going to be a zero-sum game. This was certainly their conclusion from the decision to go ahead with recognizing an independent Kosovo in 2008.
It is important to recall that in the early days of his presidency Mikheil Saakashvili had sought to improve relations with Moscow, even signing an agreement with Russia on military-technical assistance in April 2004. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said, back in those days, “With [the] coming of the new leadership of Georgia, definite developments have already been observed.” Russian sources claim that the Kremlin then offered a deal to Tbilisi, where Russia would cease its support for Georgia’s rebellious provinces in return for Georgia recognizing Russia’s strategic interests in the region. But apparently the price—of Georgia renouncing its desire for joining the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community—was deemed too high by the Georgian government. Moreover, the rhetoric emanating from Western capitals, and specifically from Washington, seemed to indicate that Georgia didn’t need to choose. The West would facilitate its integration and assist in the recovery of the lost provinces.
But Western rhetoric never matched the West’s willingness to commit actual resources. So politicians routinely extolled the virtues of expanded the Euro-Atlantic community across the Eurasian plains, but increasingly were confronted with the realities of expansion fatigue. The climax to this contradictory process was the torturous compromise reached at the NATO summit in Bucharest this past spring—a declaration that Georgia and Ukraine should be included in the alliance at some indefinite point in the future, matched with few concrete steps designed to make this outcome a reality.
At the same time, however, NATO itself was losing coherence. When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949, there was a clear and present danger facing all of its members: the looming threat of the USSR. Moreover, the Soviet Union was viewed by all NATO allies as the single greatest threat to their independence, freedom, and prosperity. Certainly, over the years of the Cold War, NATO allies differed in how to respond to Moscow—but as long as the USSR maintained its forward deployments in Central Europe and continued to marshal an overwhelming conventional force (not to mention nuclear weapons) against the West, it was possible for the allies to find consensus.
Since 1989, that focal point has been lost. The newest NATO members, of course, continue to view a non-communist, non-Soviet Russia as a traditional great power threat. Many Europeans, among them France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy, want the alliance to focus primarily on its core mission of ensuring the security of continental Europe. Many American pundits and politicians, in contrast, want to transform NATO into an alliance of global reach with no fixed geographic zone of operations.
But if the alliance cannot agree on what constitutes a common threat, then its commitments and guarantees are weakened. More than five years ago, the first warning bell rang.
On February 6, 2003, three Western European members of NATO—France, Germany and Belgium—rejected a U.S. request for the alliance to deploy assets and equipment to Turkey in advance of the Iraq war. The signal was quite clear: should Ankara get into trouble because it decided to take part in a U.S.-led war of choice against Baghdad, neither the Turkish government nor Washington could expect the automatic support of the alliance, Article 5 of the alliance treaty notwithstanding. While a compromise was reached several weeks later that did provide for NATO support, the Turkish parliament, in the end, refused to authorize the use of Turkish soil to launch a “northern front” against Iraq, making the question moot.
Because a strike by Saddam Hussein against Turkey was the dog that never barked, the implication of the Franco-Belgian-German position—which both Belgium and Germany then backed away from later in February—was never fully digested. But the precedent had been set—that NATO guarantees were not blank checks and the culpability of an alliance member in provoking an attack could be taken into account by other NATO states in determining whether to render aid and assistance. Increasingly, many Western European powers have sought to caution new and aspirant East European members of NATO not to use the alliance as a way to pressure Russia. It is quite significant that in the U.S. press following the recent Russian-Georgian fighting the standard American position was that “how and who started the conflict is not important”; in many European media outlets, in contrast, there was a heated debate over precisely that question—with a number of commentators arguing that Europe should not be extending any sort of security guarantee to Georgia because its leadership was “reckless” or “hot-headed.”
With Russia today unilaterally defining its position in Georgia, with the Russian parliament voting to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the European Union ruling out sanctions against Russia, these two trends—both of which began in 2003—have now reached their culmination.
There are two courses of action. One is for NATO to define its eastern frontier—meaning that the former USSR beyond the three Baltic Republics is to be left outside the alliance’s zone of operation—with the West’s strategy to pursue not full membership for these countries but rather a neutral status that would allow countries that want to be part of the West culturally and economically to do so. The other is for the U.S. and some of its European partners to forge a new Iraq-style “coalition of the willing” that will work to extend Western influence and counter the resurgence of Russian power in the Eurasian space—but to forego the full support and backing of NATO’s European core in the process (but trying to leave the alliance intact for maintaining European security and the trans-Atlantic connection). The moment for this decision is rapidly approaching—and will determine what future, if any, NATO really has.
Nikolas Gvosdev, formerly editor of The National Interest, is a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College.
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