The Challenge of Limited War

Via MDC at Foreign Policy Watch, Fareed Zakaria argues that Russia’s invasion of Georgia will go down as a major strategic blunder, an overreach along the lines of Afghanistan in 1979. I’m not so sure. It’s true that Russia’s heavyhanded approach has validated many of Eastern Europe’s worst fears, triggering a reflex lurch to the West. But Poland’s decision to accept the American missile defense system, which Zakaria links directly to the invasion, is more an acceleration than an about face. And as MDC points out, the trans-Atlantic unity that Zakaria claims the Russian invasion fostered is not uniform. In fact, as Art Goldhammer astutely observed two weeks ago, the Russians have actually driven an effective wedge into the EU, dividing it back into what Andrew Sullivan called “Old Europe vs. New Europe (plus Britain).”

Worse still, the Russian invasion has demonstrated the difficulty of formulating an effective response to limited war in the post-Iraq era.Zakaria correctly points out that in the absence of engagement, the only options for responding to this type of operation are either war or appeasement. Since a war with Russia, even one carried out via proxy, would definitely widen and almost certainly escalate, that’s the kind of choice we want to avoid. But as long as Russia’s coffers continue to be filled by its energy revenues, it’s unlikely we’ll manage the kind of leverage necessary to bring it into line.

Reiterating his faith in the integrative effect of globalization, Zakaria maintains that “. . .[W]e’re not in the 19th century, where the Russian intervention would have been standard operating procedure for a great power.” That may be so, but the risk still exists that the era of protracted, pervasive limited war that most Western military analysts foresee won’t be limited to asymmetric insurgencies. If so, the Russian operation might very well go down as a harbinger of great (and not-so-great) power behavior in the 21st century.

Update: Kal at The Moor Next Door makes some good points about the costs Russia will pay in the East (ie. Asia) for its Georgian invasion.