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As the conflict between Georgia and Russia unfolded in the Caucasus, the West found itself lacking any kind of meaningful riposte. In fact, the response from international bodies responsible for conflict management has been so timorous that it raises important questions regarding Europe’s collective security agreements.
Alastair Cameron, Head, European Security Programme, RUSI
Based on the initial calculation that a measured confrontation with Russian ‘peacekeepers’ would not go too far beyond rhetoric, Georgia launched the initial salvo. In doing so, the Georgians felt justified that they were responding firmly to a long series of provocations and underhand tactics aimed at undermining its political and territorial sovereignty. Gambling with high stakes, there is little doubt that the Georgians will have been emboldened by the notion that an escalating crisis would inevitably draw in the United States, as well as other Europeans, eager to back-up a prospective ally.
This was a very risky strategy, attempting as it were to call Russia’s bluff. Nonetheless, the immediacy and execution of the Russian response should leave observers in no doubt that this was a contingency their forces were well prepared for and a turn in which they ultimately held a much better hand.
However, in launching the attack and subsequently losing its military campaign, Georgia has in the same breadth called the Western countries’ bluff as well. The Western bluff – much like deterrence – was namely that they would step-in early and defend the status quo. Too close to call as violence escalated between the two countries, this desperate situation is one that would have stretched to their very limits the security guarantees that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was either led to believe or had in fact obtained from NATO and/or the US.
A fragile cease-fire and a very different situation in Georgia has now been achieved on the ground, but what of it and what immediate lessons should Europeans draw from the experience?
At first hand, a major power confrontation being conducted on the borders of Europe brings back clear memories of the Cold War era. Unless both the EU and NATO now take a concerted measure of what needs to be done to respond to Russia, these security architectures will face serious concerns coming from within.
While most European diplomats expressed their ‘grave concerns’ regarding the escalation of violence, political leaders from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland issued a joint statement on Saturday saying that ‘the EU and NATO must take the initiative and stand up against the spread of imperialist and revisionist policy in the east of Europe’, thereby strongly taking a stand against Russia's military incursions within Georgia. Officials from those same four countries, plus Ukraine, went to Tbilisi to support Saakashvili in a further expression of solidarity.
As former Warsaw Pact countries themselves, these countries have faced similar confrontations and the sight of Russia baring its claws once more in the Caucasus will only confirm lingering anxieties since the demise of the Soviet Union. The constitutional prerogative which Russia used in order to justify the use of force in view of protecting Russian citizens abroad will have sent chilling signals not only to these countries, but to all those sharing a border or having delicate relations with Russia.
While Europe’s response to Caucasus developments was indeed better off remaining at the stage of diplomacy, a stronger stand should have been taken and made more immediately. So far, Europe’s collective expression of concern in the face of Russian intransigence will have done very little to reassure Europe’s neighbours to its Eastern front, let alone some of its own Allies and Member States.
In a recent RUSI Occasional Paper, ‘NATO’s Strategic and Operational Challenges’ the following point was made:
the Alliance has yet to have a serious discussion on how to manage Russia, and it has failed to engage the new allies in a manner that reassures them of NATO’s commitment to collective defence under Article Five […] “NATO’s easternmost allies are not in Afghanistan because they feel that the security of Afghanistan is directly linked to their national security. They are there because they feel that their national security is directly linked to the United States and NATO. In support of the Alliance, they are contributing in the spirit of solidarity and in the belief that this contribution will one day be paid back should Russia become problematic.
At current, the wider picture of Europe’s relations with Russia looks pretty grim and security and defence directorates all over Europe will have now begun looking more gravely towards Europe’s eastern periphery. While Western countries have worked hard to maintain the status quo arrested at the end of the Cold War, Russia has never accepted it. The Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty is now in taters and the relationship between all parties further strained.
Many questions remain unanswered as the situation has yet to unfold; however it should be clear that Russian intentions towards the West have taken a new, if not unexpected turn. Europeans must therefore renew with some of the harder-edged defence strategic planning of Cold War years and invest in defence structures in Eastern Europe, establishing bases to help reinforce Europe’s commitment to the security of all allies. Egged on by Central and Eastern European countries, the EU and NATO alike have no other choice than address their concerns regarding issues of mutual defence or expose the weakness of their resolve.
During the Cold War, the concept of a graduated response implied that an aggressive move would be matched with defensive mechanisms. Although careful as to how they should structure their response – indeed no one wishes to trigger a new cold war – Europeans must again get serious about their own defence. Concentrating military efforts where they matter, engaging politically in the Balkans and towards the wider security of the continent, are indeed more pressing challenges than creating what can sometimes appear as vacuous or foreign-aimed capability concepts.
The question as to how Europe’s sense of security will be affected by this in the long run is one which will take time to assess. A conservative guess however is that it is currently more than Europeans will care to face up to.
1. “NATO’s Strategic and Operational Challenges” - RUSI Transatlantic and European Security Programme Study; Michael Williams and Alastair Cameron; May 2008 - Pages 7 - 8
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.