How Does It End?

August 11, 2008 Topic: DefenseSecuritySociety Region: RussiaSouth CaucasusEurasia Tags: South Ossetia

How Does It End?

Pondering the endgame in the Georgia-Russia conflict, now that Moscow has sent a clear message: don’t try to interfere in our sphere of influence.

How does the war in the Caucasus end? My assessment, based on the reports I've read, is that, having cleared all of South Ossetia and Abkhazia of Georgian forces, the Russian military will finish up its operations to degrade the Georgian military (striking bases, storage depots and other facilities) to ensure that a repeat of the assault on South Ossetia could never happen again. If, in the process, some civilian targets or energy infrastructure assets are hit, that may be regrettable, but it also serves to make the point to the Georgian population at large as well as the international energy firms that the West-and the United States in particular-was unable to prevent this from happening, and that Moscow is now in charge of determining facts on the ground.

Military operations come to an end in a few days, with new and reinforced "cease-fire" lines that guarantee the de facto independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia.

There will be a good deal of talk about dialogues and negotiations and envoys will flitter to and fro, but with little real effect.

Whether much will be done to help the ordinary Ossetians and Georgians and others who are suffering remains to be seen. The general rule for politicians over the last several decades-Cyprus being the rare exception-is to magnify people's suffering as a political tool.

The debate in Europe will intensify over the wisdom of trying to extend the Euro-Atlantic zone into the heart of Eurasia, or whether it is better to consolidate Europe behind its current eastern borders of the Vistula, the Pruth and the Baltic littoral. We should expect a highly contentious NATO meeting at the end of the year as a result. What will happen to the transatlantic relationship as a result is unclear.

American politicians will ratchet up their rhetoric but the strategy of trying to contain Russia at no cost to the United States and via the use of local proxies has been demonstrated to be hollow. Nor is Washington in any position to exercise any real leverage over Russia. It's not as if there was a deal in the works on missile defense, or any of the other contentious issues. And in the frosty climate that is rapidly chilling as we speak, even the sensible and practical proposals advanced by Defense Secretary Gates will be labeled as some sort of horrible appeasement of a "revanchist Russia." And there is but a snowball's chance in hell that any U.S. politician is going to adopt the advice proffered by former deputy national security advisor Bob Blackwill in the pages of The National Interest for an interest-based relationship with Russia.

But the most chilling and frightening aspect is that the illusion of a world governed by "rules" backed up by American power has been shattered once and for all. State sovereignty doesn't mean much; neither do illusory "guarantees" that are not backed by real commitments. Trust the "international community"? Trust the "goodwill" of Western politicians?

Georgia has gone down the path blazoned by the politicians of the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon, who trusted in American might to hold Syria (and Hezbollah) at bay and American influence to restrain Israel.

There is a good deal of foaming at the mouth by U.S. pundits about Russia's return to nineteenth-century balance-of-power/sphere of influence politics, but my sense is that much of the rest of the world-including Europe-may becoming more comfortable with that.

Finally, simply perusing the blogosphere-not only in America but in Europe, Russia and India-it's clear that people not only have a difference of opinion, they have different facts. Everything depends on the eye of the beholder. Kosovo, Ossetia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kashmir, and so on-but the unifying theme is not an appeal to any sort of dispassionate neutral arbitration, but instead follows the age-old rule, "Keep your friends, destroy your enemies."

The elder George H. W. Bush envisioned a "new world order" where the major powers would coordinate their actions to try and advance peace and security around the globe. Nearly two decades later, we seem to be entering an era where statesmen are guided by the following Biblical maxim: "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). We should be prepared for greater instability down the road.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior editor at The National Interest. He is also a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views contained here are entirely his own.