Playing with Fire in Georgia

The rising tensions between Russia and Georgia, which I used yesterday to develop an abstract argument, are pretty alarming in more concrete ways. It’s easy enough to fall into the lethargic habit of saying, “Sure, there’s been a bit of sabre-rattling here, a downed drone there, but nobody’s going to actually go to war over this thing.” But as Richard Weitz makes clear in his latest WPR piece, we’ve actually got the makings of a hot conflict on our hands.

Weitz concludes by advocating a global approach towards Russia:

Instead, Russian-Georgian differences need to be managed within a wider context that also addresses the other issues separating Russia and the West. Recent experience has shown that Moscow will readily exert pressure on Georgia whenever clashes arise with the West over Kosovo, arms control, or NATO expansion.

In other words, transactional bargaining, or “trade-offs.” Now, as much as I argued yesterday that, in theory, the emerging geopolitical landscape will increasingly render trade-offs obsolete, in practice we’re not there yet, and the complex bundle of issues on the U.S./EU-Russian agenda probably illustrate that as well as anything.

Weitz’ formulation still leaves me less than optimistic. By pushing through Kosovo independence, insisting on NATO expansion (unsuccessfully) and rushing headlong towards missile defense (far from guaranteed), the West has fired off most of its ammunition, leaving us with very little potential energy left to use as leverage with Russia. On the other hand, Moscow now has the very sensitive raw nerve of Georgia’s breakaway provinces to play with whenever ratcheting up tensions suits its purposes.

At the same time, to illustrate how trade-offs have already receded in international relations, at the same time that Russia, the EU and the U.S. have been engaged in bitter disputes over Kosovo and Abkhazia, Russia has supported a third round of sanctions on Iran, contributed helicopters to the EU peacekeeping mission in Chad, allowed NATO to use its territory to supply troops in Afghanistan, and pursued a strengthened cooperative framework with the EU.

Shooting wars have a way of changing all that, though, which makes preventing one in Georgia a high priority. It’s worth remembering, too, that the Bush administration’s position on Georgia’s NATO membership essentially means that this conflict, if it led to hostilities, would rise to the level of a NATO deployment, under the Article 5 obligations. Which begs the question, Are we willing to go to war for Abkhazia?