Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Georgia-Russia Conflict: Possible Responses and Long Term Impacts

Part 6 of a 6 part essay on the recent conflict in Georgia, its causes, and its potential implications.

If the West and the rest of the world do not want to see further Russian incursions into countries in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus, they will need to punish Russia more effectively for last month’s incursion into Georgia than they have so far. Unfortunately, the West’s options are constrained by the significant leverage Russia has attained over it. In particular, Western Europe has come to rely heavily on Russian energy exports: the European Union (EU) currently imports nearly half of its natural gas and 30% of its oil.[1] Russia has demonstrated in the past that it is willing to use its energy exports as a political tool, and so European nations are rightfully worried that if they respond too harshly to Russian actions in Georgia – like by imposing sanctions, perhaps – Russia may very well retaliate by halting the exportation of oil and natural gas to the said countries or by raising the prices of such resources. Either move would have a devastating effect on the economies of Europe.

Even the United States has had to rely on Russia in recent years. Sufficient Russian diplomatic pressure could potentially tip the scales in favor of or against the United States with regard to Iran, Sudan, and North Korea. Such support from Russia could not really be counted on, though, if the United States responds too forcefully to last month’s invasion of Georgia.[2]

Despite the weight of Russia’s leverage, Western rhetoric has at least been critical of Russia’s aggression, with EU countries, particularly France, condemning Russian military operations and President Bush calling Russia’s actions “unacceptable in the 21st century.”[3]

China, meanwhile, has not overtly supported or condemned Russia: through a joint statement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China officially supported “the active role of Russia in assisting peace and cooperation in the region” but at the same time expressed “deep concern over the recent tensions surrounding the South Ossetia question and calls for the sides to peacefully resolve existing problems through dialogue.”[4]

Still, the West can and should do more to express its discontent with Russia’s recent actions towards Georgia. Rhetoric may effectively convey opinions and stir emotion, but it has limited practical effect. The option of expelling Russia from the G8 also does not seem very pragmatic and indeed might weaken the legitimacy of the organization. With sanctions seeming too risky and double-edged and direct military intervention absurd, the West should instead focus on rebuilding Georgia, particularly its infrastructure and military, and it should also not put an end to Georgia’s as well as Ukraine’s hopes for joining NATO (though at the same time it should entreat Georgian and Ukrainian leaders not to act so rashly in the future so as to lessen the chances of a repeat of last month’s events in Georgia). In particular, the United States should continue to have military advisors train the Georgian military[5] and should start shipping more weapons to Georgia as well. Such actions would not directly punish Russia, but they would in effect undo some of the gains that Russia hoped to achieve by invading Georgia in the first place.

If nothing else, hopefully last month’s events will push the West to reduce its reliance on Russia in the long term. For Europe, this means lessening its dependence on Russian energy by continuing to pursue alternatives to fossil fuels as well as to keep looking for energy routes (such as the Caucasus pipelines) that bypass Russia. For America, this means moving away from the highly personal relationship with Russia that Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin had cultivated with U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Instead, the United States should move back towards a stricter, more interest-based relationship with Russia.[6]

No matter what further action is taken, though, last month’s Georgia episode has clearly been one of the greatest strains on the current international system of checks and balances. At the moment, the long term lesson from this incident has been that, with enough hard power, a country can do what it pleases without consequence. Indeed, in a way the United States itself has reinforced this impression with its fairly unilateral invasion of Iraq and conduct in its “war on terror.”

Such an environment is eerily similar to that which existed in the years preceding WWII as the international community and the League of Nations did little to hinder the aggressive advances of Japan and Nazi Germany. This would eventually lead to the end of the set international order and of the League of Nations. Hopefully, a similar restructuring will not take place now.

With Russia, though, the rest of the world might get lucky. Russia’s resurgence has been no Renaissance: it has not invested its oil and natural gas wealth into long term economic stability, and so its influence will likely wane as oil and natural gas fall out of use and favor.

The rise of powers such as India and China, though, seem inevitable. Perhaps the most enduring effect of last month’s events in Georgia is what lessons these and other rising countries will take from them.


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