So, what is it going to be, exactly? A military response isn’t an option, and Moscow knows it – though quite how far they can push before getting shoved back in return we don’t yet know (Georgia may be strategically important, but isn’t yet a member of NATO; the same goes for Ukraine; but what about Estonia, with it’s sizable population of ethnic Russians and history of tensions with its larger neighbour? We’re all meant to fight for EU and NATO member Estonia – but if push did come to shove, would we?) Economic sanctions are unlikely to have much impact when Russia has such a tight grip of the European energy market and can hurt us far more than we can hurt them. We also can’t risk ceasing to trade with Moscow as winter approaches and Russian gas supplies become ever more vital – whereas they can do without European markets, if necessary.
But one thing is clear – if Europe’s strategy remains unclear, Russia’s seems to have failed. If the aim of the Georgia expedition was, as many have assumed, to reintroduce Moscow’s will to the Western periphery of the Russian Federation, then finally pushing Poland into the arms of the Americans was certainly not the desired result. Especially when Ukraine – that other nascent nation with a history of troubles and a sizeable Russian population on the Eurasian border that some have pointed to as “Russia’s next target” swiftly follows suit.
But still, I’m not sure I buy this whole “extending influence” thing. Not only does Russia seem to have hardened the anti-Moscow attitudes of the old Warsaw Pact EU member states (including among the people, many of whom have, in ex-Soviet countries, had a tendency for rosy nostalgia for the days of communism), but also pushed Ukraine further westwards, and potentially gained Georgia the NATO seat she wanted even though Tbilisi’s recent actions show that the country’s really not ready yet.
But that’s not all. Russia’s also singularly failed to maintain control over Chechnya despite years of fighting, and has even found the conflict spreading into neighbouring parts of the Caucasus – as well as to the Russian capital itself. In Georgia, rather than a disciplined and efficient military manoeuvre, we’ve seen poor targeting, poor discipline, and a seeming lack of ability to decide what the hell to do – having pushed in to Georgian territory and taken Gori, the Russians seem largely to have been milling around trying to look macho for the last week or two, while seemingly ignoring presidential orders. This is, it seems, what you get from a conscript army.
So, when we come to look back on this in a few months’ time, what will Moscow have achieved? Well, she may be able to gain a bit more influence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but those two regions hold little of any strategic value (bar Abkhazia’s apparently rather beautiful stretches of Black Sea coastline). Georgia will continue to be the non-Russian route of choice for Central Asian oil and gas to Europe – only now, undoubtedly, with a far stronger western military presence to guard the infrastructure. Georgia’s chances of NATO membership will have been greatly increased, as will those of Ukraine. The significance of energy dependence on Russia will also have become far more apparent to a far wider group of people (the reason we need to develop alternate energy sources is not global warming, folks, it’s Gazprom…) The threat of Russian instability – long largely ignored by many in the West, desperately hoping that Putin was one of us despite his authoritarian ways – will have become clear. But it should also have become clear that Russia’s army really isn’t much of a threat. A few ill-trained teenagers with battered equipment can cause some short-term chaos, certainly – they can maim and kill and loot and burn as well as anyone. But even supported with tanks, I’m not convinced of the threat of the Russian army any more – or of the minds coming up with Russian strategy. It’s still early days, but as NATO plans its longer-term response this whole escapade is beginning to look like it’s backfired on Moscow.
So, what’s the next step? Well, having been slow to act to the initial violence, the best bet for Europe/NATO is probably to sit back and wait to see what the next move from Moscow is going to be, because they’ve probably already started to realise their mistake. For NATO or the EU to suddenly come out with some hasty, highly public punitive measures is likely to spark further escalation as Moscow seeks to save face.
I can’t see too much direct Russian intervention in Ukraine – bar the usual behind-the-scenes funding – as long as Ukraine’s politicians continue their ridiculous infighting (that’s been going on ever since the damp squib that was the Orange Revolution back in November 2004), as a divided Ukraine is very much in Russia’s interests, something that can be exploited while the West sits back and waits for them to resolve their differences. The most likely option is a revival of the old plan to merge Belarus with Russia – a project that’s been on-off, on-off for years now, and which Russia has previously been the reluctant party to – not worth much to Moscow in real terms (Belarus has little to offer economically), but psychologically important, almost completely cutting off the Baltic states, and giving Russia a border only 150 kilometres from Warsaw.
But how do you second-guess Russia? Moscow doesn’t think like governments in the West. At least, we don’t think they do. Because no one really seems to know what Russia’s up to. We can’t even tell who the next head of state is going to be until they tell us, after all. There are countless conspiracy theories about what Russia’s plan is – from shadowy groups of ex-KGB men plotting a global takeover to shadowy groups of ultracapitalist gangsters trying to wring as much money out of everyone as possible – and none of them are entirely convincing.
The old question “cock-up or conspiracy” should always be met with the answer “cock-up” until you’re presented with some very compelling evidence to the contrary. Russia’s Georgia escapade looks rather like it was designed to be a conspiracy, but it’s one they so far appear to have cocked up. A plan designed to show Russia as strong, powerful, and capable of decisive action has, instead, shown her to be incapable and pushed those she was wooing even further into the opposing camp. This Georgia episode has shown that Putin’s old tough guy act is just that. Russia’s prepared to bully those littler than her, but wouldn’t be able to hack it in a real fight. (Not that I’m advocating getting into a real fight with Russia, obviously – in this case, the best response to the bully is probably to pretend to ignore her while sniggering a bit to make sure she knows we didn’t miss her failure… The embarrassment may just be enough to stop her from trying it again – because image does seem to be everything to this lot.)