In 2008 Vladimir Putin provoked a war with Georgia by giving its president, Mikhail Sakashvili, the poisoned choice either of losing two “breakaway” regions of his country to pro-Russian separatists and Russian “peacekeepers” illegally present there or of risking an attempt to recover them by military action. Sakashvili chose the second course—which was also a Russian trap—and was defeated. Russian troops advanced to within twenty-five kilometres of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where they halted and have remained.
John O’Sullivan appears in every Quadrant.
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At that time I was the executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague which broadcast to twenty-two countries in twenty-eight languages. Our Georgian service was an especially influential one with first-class journalists in Prague and Tbilisi. I took the crisis as a chance to visit the Tbilisi bureau, and after a few days of meeting local politicians, diplomats, economists and journalists, I set down my thoughts in a commentary for RFE/RL’s English language service.
My first thoughts, slightly abridged here, were that the Russo-Georgian war was a very postmodern experience.
Tbilisi, August 2008. Seated in an open-air restaurant overlooking the Mtkvari River, enjoying a light lunch of mountain trout and Georgian salad, one finds it hard to believe that Russian tanks are only about twenty-five kilometres away—indeed that they may be even closer by the time the Turkish coffee arrives.
Tbilisi has few signs of being a capital city at war. National flags hang from many buildings. Newspapers have emphatic anti-Russian headlines such as “Peacekeepers Go Home”. Some pavement satirist has sprayed the features of Vladimir Putin on the pathways so that pedestrians tread on his face.
But there are no bomb shelters; no one looks up anxiously at the sky when a plane is heard; and refugees head into the capital from South Ossetia for help rather than away from it in panic.
This postmodern invasion looks very different to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia forty years ago. In 1968, Soviet tanks reached the centre of Prague. Today, Russian tanks seem to be going back and forth around major Georgian towns, but they will not head straight for Tbilisi without an additional (and highly improbable) Georgian provocation. In 1968, Czech leaders of the Prague Spring were rounded up and deported, reappearing years later as gardeners and furnace-men. Today, Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, addresses large anti-Russian allies in the capital and hosts visits from Western leaders. In 1968, the Soviet invasion was a “multinational” one drawn from the entire USSR and Eastern Europe; today, most members of the CIS have either criticised the Russian invasion or remained silent.
Soviet Russia in 1968 had to make a fairly simple calculation. It had to weigh the preservation of its power over Eastern Europe against the value of political and economic detente with America. It chose the former, calculating that the United States would restore detente from a mixture of self-interest and moral weakness after an interval. And that is what happened.
Two weeks ago, the authoritarian Russia of Vladimir Putin had a much more complex problem to solve. Its war aims were to “punish” Georgia for seeking to join NATO (and for being noisily pro-West in general); to warn other ex-colonies such as Ukraine and Poland not to follow Georgia down the same path; to establish de facto control over all the energy pipelines going from Central Asia to Western Europe; and to translate its new-style geo-economic power into old-style geo-political power. But the Kremlin wanted these results without (a) damaging Russia’s access to Western markets and investment; (b) undermining good diplomatic relations with the West; (c) provoking Eastern and Western Europe into safeguarding their interests against newly visible Russian threats; and (d) infringing international norms too blatantly.
Hence the Kremlin needed a pretext, a respectable war aim, and a satisfactory media “narrative” for its nice little war. Saakashvili provided the first by allowing the Georgian forces to respond to shelling with a full-scale military assault. [The Kremlin’s professed] war aim was the defence of South Ossetia and its peacekeepers which in theory limited the geographical reach of Russia’s advance. Russia’s official media catered to the third necessity by accusing the Georgians of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”—genocide justifies intervention under international law—while the fog of war was still thick on the battlefield.
If this narrative had stuck, Russia might have prevailed morally in diplomatic debate as well as militarily in the locality. But it was contradicted too plainly by the reality of a massive, planned Russian invasion. And as the media uncovered more and more of this reality—symbolised by Russian forces moving out of some towns but digging in elsewhere on Georgian territory—so the boomerang effects of the Russian intervention began to appear: Poland signed a deal to accept US missile defences, and Ukraine offered its own interceptors for the missile-defence system; investors began to take their money out of Russia; Western leaders turned up in Tbilisi pledging eventual admission into NATO; a NATO summit ended “business as usual” co-operation with Russia as long as the Georgia crisis persisted; and Russian diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere had to fend off charges of barely concealed aggression.
None of these reactions will continue or bear fruit in the form of changed Russian behaviour unless the West remains united. And that raises a larger question about contending forces in global politics.
Two recent books—The New Cold War by Edward Lucas, and The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan—have argued persuasively that instead of an essentially peaceful world of co-operative democracies, we face a new struggle, global and ideological, between the Western democracies and self-confident and economically successful authoritarian states such as Russia and China.
In fact, as the crisis revealed, the “Western democracies” were not one camp but two. Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Ukraine and the United States wanted clear support for Georgia, its early entry into NATO, condemnation of Russian aggression, and the threat of strong penalties—such as exclusion of Russia from the Group of Eight (G8)—if the Kremlin maintained its hard line.
On the other hand, France, Germany, Benelux, Spain and Italy wanted a softer policy, avoiding condemnation of Russia or measures such as exclusion from the G8, in order to keep Russia engaged with the West. (British policy sought a third way, being pro-Georgian but not anti-Russian—in short, a typical British muddle—but London is likely to drift in the direction of the US-New Europe camp in practice.)
That division within Europe overlaps heavily with an ideological distinction stressed by Kagan in an earlier book: those who see a need for sovereign states and military power (and so are NATO-minded) versus those who believe that “lawfare” has replaced warfare in a world of soft power, global rules and supranational bodies (and so look to the European Union as their main security provider.) If so, then the world is really in a three-way struggle between authoritarians, national democrats and global legalists.
But the odd thing is that when the crisis broke, those who rushed to defend the new international norms were not the global legalists but the national democrats—in particular, the leaders of Poland and the Baltic states who came to Tbilisi to show solidarity with the Georgians (as shortly afterwards did the British Tory leader David Cameron).
The global legalists were very quiet about Russia’s breaking of the rules. The EU mission to Moscow led by Nicolas Sarkozy operated on the premise that it was necessary to avoid condemning Russia in order to be a successful mediator. Yet Sarkozy and his EU team were bamboozled by the Russians into accepting and promoting a cease-fire agreement that contained loopholes through which the Russians drove entire tank battalions. And that diplomatic failure was made easier precisely because the Russians were not put in the dock.
In the end, the EU argument that pooling sovereignty leads to greater real power proved to be a sham—and worse than a sham. It led in practice to collective impotence and self-deception. And there is a reason why that will always happen.
Global legalism rests upon the delusion that powers with the ability to assert their interest in some vital matter can be prevented from doing so solely by rules in which every state has a modest long-term theoretical investment. But as soon as a real crisis erupts—and Georgia was certainly such a crisis—the global legalists realise that their legal restraints are incapable of restraining the rule-breaker. In order to maintain their legalist fiction, therefore, they have to deny or obfuscate the fact that the rules have been broken or that any particular state is responsible for the conflict.
If they have to take sides, they tend to support the stronger power since that makes it easier to solve the dispute in a way that seemingly conforms to the rules. Might is cloaked with Right in order to save the blushes of the “international community”. If the rules are to have real impact, they must be backed by more than a legalist fiction.
In the Georgia crisis those nation-states and international bodies that defended the global rules effectively, that condemned Russia for breaking them, and that used the soft power of public diplomacy to restore their effectiveness were all forces that could ultimately call on hard power or serious national self-interest to support their words. Practitioners of hard power were able to use soft power; advocates of soft power ended up wielding no power at all.
Neither NATO nor the EU covered itself with glory in this crisis. But the EU actively appeased Russia, while NATO at least resisted feebly. NATO can exert real pressure on Russia, in part because it disposes of real military power, in part because it includes states, notably Poland, that have a real stake in Russia not winning outright in Georgia.
Moreover, Poland and its “New Europe” allies have an additional motive for their defence of Georgia. They are still conscious of the value of their own democratic sovereignty—hence respectful of other sovereign democracies. More elderly democracies in Western Europe seem to have forgotten the pleasures of self-government.
This postmodern war still continues. Yet it has already proven a great deal: the limits of military power in Russia’s case, the limits of soft power in Europe’s case, and the emptiness of global legalism without roots in real nations, real interests, and real democratic accountability.
THAT’S how my commentary ended in August 2008. Alas, the first thing to be said in response to it is that it underestimated the shrewdness of Putin’s calculation that the West would accept his victory in Georgia and return to business-as-usual after a brief diplomatic resistance.
While Putin saw that military power had limits in the Georgia crisis, he also realised it could be a decisive part of an overall military-cum-diplomatic strategy that exploited the self-deceiving desire of his opponents for a quiet life. He could strike, halt and propose negotiations—or even just wait for the West to do so.
Not only did he learn that lesson in 2008, he also applied it six years later in 2014 when he assisted two Eastern Russian-speaking regions to break away from Ukraine and annexed Crimea in a series of “salami tactics” that never provoked the West openly enough to make it oppose him. Quite the reverse. Between 2014 and 2022 most NATO countries continued two policies—starving defence forces of money and increasing their dependence on Russian energy—that made it almost impossible for them to envisage resisting any future Russian aggression. And when President Trump asked them explicitly to change these policies, he was dismissed as a dangerous clown.
All in all, if Putin had continued along this cautious zig-zag path, he might well have got the Ukrainian neutrality and the weakened NATO he wanted without arousing the West to serious resistance. But he forgot the limits of military power, became too confident of his own strategic genius, and staked all on a blitzkrieg to seize Kyiv and occupy Ukraine.
At that point everything apparently changed. All the NATO countries united around a common policy that Putin’s aggressive war must be resisted, and Ukraine must be helped both directly by supplies of advanced weaponry and indirectly by economic and energy sanctions.
The three-way world struggle between authoritarians, national democrats and global legalists that we saw in 2008 was still very much in being. But China, though Putin’s authoritarian ally, seemed to be sitting this one out as a mildly interested spectator. As for the NATO-minded national democrats and EU-minded global legalists, though both were singing the same pro-Ukrainian song, they lined up slightly differently from 2008.
The national democrats had gained recruits—with earlier members like the US, Poland, most of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Baltics being joined by Spain, the Netherlands, and new recruits like Finland and Sweden frightened into applying for NATO membership by Putin’s brutal invasion. They are a more powerful faction than before. And this time the Brits (liberated by Brexit to make their own foreign policy) are playing a leading and energetic role alongside the US in drumming up serious military and diplomatic support for Ukraine.
That leaves Germany, France, Italy and Hungary (an uncomfortable recruit to the EU-minded global legalist camp) offering slightly different degrees of resistance to a strong anti-Russian policy. As in 2008 under Sarkozy, France under Macron sought to negotiate Putin out of a jam but failed. Germany consistently seeks to dilute the energy sanctions on Russia, inviting the charge that it is paying for Putin’s Ukraine. And Hungary—playing interference for Germany rather than for Russia—has alienated Poland, its closest partner in Central Europe, by its tepid support for Ukraine.
Those divisions do not exhaust the diplomatic and ideological differences in the Euro-Atlantic world over Ukraine. At a time when NATO is seeking to unify Europe’s response to the Ukraine crisis, the EU Commission is pushing ahead with “rule of law” penalties against both Poland and Hungary despite their joint acceptance of several million Ukrainian refugees. Likewise, the Biden State Department maintains a cold diplomacy towards both allies. An intellectually powerful movement in American conservatism, understandably reluctant to see America dragged into another European war, has translated this reluctance into angry hostility to Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy because his brave leadership attracts US public support. Some US foreign policy “realists” cling to Putin’s favourite historical theory that Ukraine is “not a real country”, which Ukrainians have conclusively disproved on the battlefield. Indeed, it’s not too much to argue that Ukraine is stimulating completely new partisan and philosophical divisions in both Europe and America.
Whatever the value of that sub specie aeternitatis, it’s a definite hindrance to NATO in its attempt to maintain united support for Ukraine. We can only hope that the Ukrainian army will rescue us all from these divisions and distractions, as—to our surprise—it has done so far.
Otherwise we seem likely to learn these very expensive lessons only in order to forget them.