Friday, August 29, 2008

Russia Recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia: A Milestone in the Lower-Case Cold War

The following is actually a prequel to the 28 August Glocom Commentary. I liked this one better, but Glocom understandably went with the later one on this fast-moving topic.

On a further note: The Western media sees the refusal of the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to recognize independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a setback for Russia. (Typical example: NYT.) I don’t think so. Given all the ethnic and religious minority issues that its members have—starting with China—I don’t think that Russia had any illusions in the first place. The relatively neutral stance that SCO adopted was the best that Russia could have hoped for. The situations in the other points of West-Russia contention are very different from that with regard to Georgia. But the chill has set in; the rest of the world is going to stay on the sidelines, and that is what the SCO statement is all about.

I believe that, as geopolitical mistake go, the failure to bring Russia under the umbrella of accepted norms of the West is bigger, if of smaller practical consequence to Japan, than President Bush's war in Iraq. A plausible argument can be made that a large, possibly definitive, part of the error with regard to Iraq was operational. There, it is hard to deny that with better planning and execution things would have turned out much better.

With Russia, the problem is conceptual and strategic. At a moment of extreme Russian weakness, the West laid out a vision for an expanded post-Cold War NATO that explicitly excluded Russia. The Bush administration continued to pursue this and other geopolitical goals that had been questionable in the first place and became increasingly counterproductive in terms of national, regional and global security when Russia saw major improvements in its geopolitical assets―national cohesion, natural resources―and began to exercise them accordingly.

It did not help that the West pushed the markers deeper, and harder, into Russia's former sphere of sovereignty and influence as time went on. The United States successfully sought to place antiballistic missile defense system of dubious military value near Russia's borders and refused Russian offers of cooperation in their regard. The West accepted over strenuous Russian objections the demands of ethnic Albanians Kosovo for full sovereignty. The West extended offers of eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia even while unwilling and unable to protect them through what would inevitably be a dangerous period of transition.

Yet even after the "ceasefire" in South Ossetia, Russian actions were graduated. But the U.S. response―sending warships, sealing an agreement with Poland on the missile defense system, generally confrontational rhetoric―left no room for Russia to scale back the post-battle confrontation. Although I was still surprised that Russia actually recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it is the logical culmination of a long string of actions on both sides that began when the West decided to exclude Russia from its vision of a united Europe.

What's done is done though. I don't see either side trying to walk back this escalation process any time soon. Although Russia is not going to challenge the United States in its global reach―this is not a return to the Cold War, in the upper case at least―it will create even more mischief in the Middle East and other places where it can harm U.S. interests. The asymmetry between the two political economies makes this a much easier task for Russia than it would be for, say, China. There's fallout on the other side too. It is also hard to see any U.S. administration clearing the way for Russian accession to the WTO any time soon. I would also be surprised to see the U.S. President taking part in a G-8 summit process, i.e. one that continues to include Russia. The G8 could revert to the G7, or even be suspended for the indefinite future. These and other ramifications will be consequences that lesser nations like Japan will have to live with as an unpleasant fact of life

The silver lining to this most recent cloud is that Russia has made its point; it has achieved in South Ossetia and Abkhazia a new military, demographic and political equilibrium. It has bitten off a piece of an outpost of the West that it needs to chew over and digest. Thus, there appears to be a little time before something else happens to further disrupt the status quo. During this lull,, if it is possible for the United States to discreetly send a message that it is willing to explore alternative ways to enhance its security without neglecting the concerns of its new allies on Russia's borders―would refraining from setting a timetable for the BMD deployment in Poland without scrapping the plan altogether work?―that would go a long way to defusing the immediate situation and ultimately begin scaling back what has become a geopolitical confrontation of major proportions.

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