Russia Makes Nice

I’ve read some convincing arguments about how Russia’s invasion of Georgia was a strategic blunder. I find them most compelling with regards to the impact it will have on Russian relations with China, as well as with other countries that have a lingering problem with breakaway provinces. But the problem with these instant analyses (my own included) is that the impact of this kind of event takes time to play out, and depends as much on the conduct afterwards as on the actual event.I’m reminded of something a jazzman (I think it was Joe Henderson) said about “blue notes”: they’re not mistakes if you find the right note to play afterwords. And by every indication, Russia is hitting the right notes afterwords.

I mentioned yesterday that, having accomplished everything that a show of force might accomplish, the Russians now had an interest in demonstrating their willingness to cooperate with the EU in order to head off longterm costs. I also mentioned that, based mainly on a sense of Vladimir Putin’s strategic instinct, I had a hunch that Russia would probably do so. The fact that it would at the same time hand a diplomatic triumph to Nicolas Sarkozy, who has demonstrated a willingness to work pragmatically with Moscow, only reinforced my suspicion.

So it didn’t surprise me to learn via Nicolas Gros-Verheyde’s Bruxelles 2 blog that Russia had already promised to withdraw to its pre-invasion lines by the end of this week before the EU’s declaration freezing the EU-Russia strategic partnership negotiations until it did so. In other words, it was a mutually convenient pre-arranged “ultimatum.” Also via Gros-Verheyde, on the same day that the EU heads of state were meeting, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed the formal order, agreed upon last April, deploying 200 Russian soldiers and four badly needed military transport helicopters to the EU’s peacekeeping operation in Chad. Medvedev also declared in an interview yesterday that Russia would honor all energy contracts with EU member states.

In other words, in the Clausewitzian politics-war continuum, Russia is very clearly signalling its intention to segue smoothly back into politics. But it is also very cleverly putting the ball back in the EU’s court as to how wide the frost will spread on EU-Russia relations. The order for the EU Chad deployment, for instance, still needs to be formally signed off on by all EU member states. And while France and Germany might be willing to accept the changes on the ground in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in return for a return to cordial relations with Moscow, it’s not so certain that England and Poland are.

So while I’m not at all endorsing Russia’s actions from a “values” perspective, from a realpolitik angle I remain unconvinced that they’ve blundered.