The conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia—and Russia’s open threat to Poland, for signing with the United States a missile-defense agreement that Washington insists is not aimed at Russia—have been followed by further events that all in all raise, once again, the question whether Russia and the Western world can really live in peace.
I am reminded of a day in 1963, when I sat at lunch in Moscow with a Soviet scientist in a place where we thought we could speak frankly. Our two governments had lately signed the limited nuclear test-ban treaty, and set up the hotline for urgent exchanges during crises. The East-West relationship had clearly improved since the death of Stalin a decade earlier; but, I told my luncheon companion, Soviet leaders’ continuing aggressive approach to the West—although they well knew that we had no aggressive aims toward them—seriously limited the possibilities for détente.
Ah, said the Russian, but you must realize that we have never forgotten the great invasion; it left us with distrust and fear of the outside world. Well, I said, it is time to forget that; more than two decades have passed since Hitler invaded the USSR.
No, no, he said; I mean the Mongol invasion of 1240. We have never forgotten how easy it was for the Mongols to sweep across Russia; we have no good natural borders like oceans or high mountains, and along these borders lie people who basically do not like us, from the Finns all the way to the Chinese.
Events in 2008 suggest that this mentality still persists in Moscow: we Russians are surrounded by unfriendly types, and for us the best defense is a good offense. The West can never agree to that proposition. We are not the ancient Mongols; we are not the Wehrmacht; the West has no aggressive aims toward Russia. We cannot, however, agree to Russia seeking to improve its own security by infringing on the rights of other independent countries, even if these countries lie along Russia’s borders and were once part of a Russian empire, Tsarist or Soviet. Georgia, for example, was ruled by Moscow for almost three centuries, but for fifteen centuries before that it was a proud kingdom, whose origins far predate the first Russian state. Every Georgian remembers the country’s great twelfth-century monarchs, David and Tamar, and I had occasions to join in toasts to them in Tbilisi even in Soviet times. No people have a more perfect right to independence than do the Georgians.
That said, we cannot ignore the fact that two non-Georgian people, the Abkhazi and the Ossetians, inhabit parts of the mainly Georgian country on the southern side of the Great Caucasus range. The Georgians may see them as foreign bodies in “their” country, but they are there to stay.
The West would exacerbate rather than ease this problem if it brought Georgia into NATO. Nor should we try to bring Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine is now independent and recognized by the world as such, but for most of its history its relationship with Russia has been, to say the least, very close; Kiev was the capital of the first Russian state. One assumes the Europeans will continue to prevent either Georgia or Ukraine from joining NATO; but this has not stopped George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, and John McCain from continuing to push the idea.
It is not clear why Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to use force in South Ossetia. There have been suggestions that the Americans may have encouraged him to do so; that the Russians may have tricked him into believing they would not retaliate. In any case it was foolhardy action on his part; and if Georgia had been a NATO member, Saakashvili could have invoked the NATO treaty and called on his new Western allies to defend him against Russia. If a world war can start in a small place like Sarajevo in 1914, could one not begin in 2008 in an obscure place like Ossetia where the ethnic picture, as in the Balkans, is both mixed and vexed and any disturbance is likely to worry the neighbors?
The question goes far beyond Ossetia. Georgia is a factor in the American confrontation, or near-confrontation, with Iran, and the Bush administration’s cooperation with Israel on this issue. As a writer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz puts it, “Tbilisi is an unequivocal ally of the United States and Israel in…efforts to block Iran’s nuclear development.” Israel has developed close relations with Georgia, including arms sales and a sizable Israeli military training mission. One imagines it has done so with the full agreement of Washington—and one imagines Bush, or rather Cheney, wanting to bring Georgia into NATO in part to strengthen Georgia as a potential partner in a coming conflict with Iran. Unfortunately, as has also been noted in Haaretz, one result of this may be to encourage greater military cooperation between Iran and Russia. As Haaretz did not need to say, another and yet worse result may be to worsen the confrontation between Russia and the West.
There is nothing to be done about this as long as Bush and Cheney remain in office, or perhaps as long as a Republican remains in the White House. Republican presidential candidate McCain is a strong supporter of getting Georgia into NATO; he would like us to believe that, as he puts it uncritically, “We are all Georgians.” Can it be that he does not understand the dangers and complexities?
A more sophisticated approach is needed. We need to find ways to end the confrontation, and to engage the Russians in a new kind of dialogue. The situation is dangerous.
In this situation, commentators have been focusing on whether the balance of power in the Northern hemisphere has shifted in Russia’s favor; on whether Russia’s new oil riches make up for its internal weaknesses; on whether Western sanctions against Russia will be useful. To some extent this is Western speculation based on Western fear—it is not only the Russians who can find reasons to fear the Other—and in fact such fear, or at least concern, may be justified.
The Russians have sent two long-range Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela at the invitation of their friend Hugo Chavez, and this is to be followed by a joint Russian-Venezuelan naval and air exercise in the Caribbean. That of course does not equate with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has indicated that the naval exercise may be a response to the recent NATO exercise in the Black Sea, involving frigates from the United States, Germany, Poland, and Spain. Putin has also said he hopes for better relations with the United States after our presidential elections. At the moment, though, one can view the current relationship as moving downhill.
There can be a better relationship not only between America and Russia, but between the East and West. Those who would like to see a sane future relationship with Russia might do well to recall the long history of East-West arms control negotiations. When the limited test-ban treaty was signed in 1963, negotiators on both sides were skeptical about making any further progress, as I well remember. (I served as the English-Russian interpreter in US-Soviet talks in Geneva in 1965-66.) It took some time before people dared to think big. Finally in 1969 we began negotiations with Moscow on limitation of strategic arms; the first concrete agreements were signed by Nixon and Brezhnev in 1972. Progress in this field has been slow; indeed it has taken decades. The comprehensive ban on nuclear testing was not signed until 1996, and today both America and Russia retain huge nuclear arsenals—and now tensions have risen.
We need to think big again. We should start thinking of a broad new security arrangement that would embrace North America, Europe, and European Russia. It need not concern Russia’s borders east of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea. Russia is already involved, in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in discussions on mutual security with its neighbors in Central and East Asia. But a new arrangement between Russia and the West, while excluding Asia, must necessarily take into account the volatile Middle East. It would be tragic if a good solution could be found to the present East-West confrontation, only to see it replaced by new confrontation with Russia over, say, Iran.
We need something bigger and better than anything that has yet been dreamed of: a new system, a series of agreements, that will ensure the sovereignty and security of all the independent countries in that broad zone stretching from the Atlantic to the Caspian, without trying to draw new, fixed international borders in places where they cannot be drawn—like Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Such a system must provide means more effective than the United Nations Security Council to defuse crises when they arrive, without lessening the present usefulness of the UN. It must help promote economic prosperity and social progress across the region. It must enable, or help enable, smaller peoples who do not have independence to enjoy autonomy within a larger framework—somewhat as the Catalans, Faroese, and Ladins do in Europe—without becoming objects of contestation between bigger neighbors. It must assume limits to autonomy in some cases. The Russians worry not only about peoples beyond their borders but about the allegiance of a few of the non-Russian entities within the Russian Federation, like the Chechens. (Within the Russian Federation there are 21 “national republics,” homelands to ethnic minorities.) But Russia is not unique in having restive minorities; look, say, at the Basques in Spain.
We need, in brief, to bridge the gap between NATO and the European Union on the west and the new security structure farther east that Russia and the Asians can build, if they will, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
This will all take years, and ingenuity, and hard work. Success cannot be guaranteed and failure might cause new crises, but the very effort should be useful. It is time to begin thinking.
The writer served in the American embassies at Moscow and Prague, and was director of the State Department’s Office of Eastern European Affairs and ambassador to Somalia.