The final consequences of the five-day armed conflict of August 2008 are not yet clear, but certain trends are already apparent.
First, Russia has for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated its capacity and readiness to use force beyond its territory in the defense of its interests. This is a new situation for Moscow’s neighbors and international partners alike.
Neighboring states now face the issue of how to guarantee their own security. Their dilemma is clear. One path is to seek the patronage of a strong state from outside of the region, finding support that goes beyond political one, to include real security guarantees. The other path is to conclude an agreement with Russia for the same type of guarantees against external threats, which also hedges against a possible worsening of relations with Russia itself.
For Georgia and, it seems, Ukraine, the choice is clear: they have chosen to seek the support of NATO and the United States. The remaining states of the region will have to give the matter serious thought. For its part, Russia must provide a clear formulation of those vital interests that it will defend with the use of force.
Second, it would be too much to say that Russia is now isolated internationally, since no country except Georgia has broken off relations with it. Nonetheless, Moscow does find itself in something of a vacuum. For various reasons, nobody has supported its actions. Russia’s long-noted lack of reliable allies is painfully apparent, and there is now the danger of Russia becoming closer to countries from which it would otherwise keep a certain distance. And they may well exact a high price for their support.
Third, Russia’s harsh actions have shown that the West’s strategy of gradually assimilating the geopolitical inheritance of the Soviet Union has reached its limit. Russian passiveness in the face of this process can no longer be taken for granted.
The United States and its European allies face the dilemma of taking a strong position, leading toward the containment of the resurgent ambitions of Moscow, or to attempt to find a balance of interests with Russia, recognizing its right to its own sphere of influence. The outcome of this dilemma is not obvious.
Fourth, divisions among Western states and their main institutions (especially NATO) have emerged. As it seeks to consolidate global leadership, the United States has overloaded itself with too many politico-military obligations. Europe is clearly divided between hawks and doves in relation to Russia. As a result, NATO and the EU find it difficult to take a firm stance.
The new and weaker part of Europe supported the American line. The conflict over Georgia could prompt a reformatting of European security structures. Regional alliances, such as one between Central and Eastern Europe plus the United States, could emerge in parallel with NATO, which would turn into a political club.
In theory, one could imagine a genuine discussion on the establishment of a new security system that would include Russian participation, but, judging from the reaction of the West, this option is practically impossible.
Fifth, the basic problem of Russo-American relations has become clear: their strategic horizons simply do not pair up.
Russia is a world power with regional ambitions. That is, it is prepared to sacrifice its interests in far-off regions (Latin America, Africa, Near and Far East) in order to preserve its vital interests in Europe and Eurasia. In other words, Russia has a gradation of interests; it has established a hierarchy of priorities.
The United States, on the other hand, is a superpower with global ambitions. As the world leader, Washington assumes that it has no “secondary” interests. Nothing can be sacrificed, and there is no point in making trades, because a compromise in one area will only provoke a domino effect. So, all other powers must be pressured to the greatest possible extent. The result is that the United States is, by definition, incapable of holding a constructive dialogue with anyone.
Sixth, a dramatic conflict of perceptions has emerged. Russia sees its actions as completely justified in political and moral terms. It is completely confident in the justification for its actions.
However, this confidence is not shared by anyone else. Moreover, the majority of influential countries hold the opposite opinion: that the actions of Russia, regardless of their motivation, are completely unacceptable.
Russia is sincerely shocked by the reaction of the West, and sees not only a double standard, but also a naked cynicism that exceeds the boundaries of normal politics. This could have far-reaching effects: Moscow may not only reject Western values, but also come to believe that there is no such thing.
Seventh, the very structure of global politics is in crisis. This system has been marked since the 1990s by an absence of systemic confrontation, the emergence of strategic partnership, and steps toward a unified world order based on shared understandings.
The reemergence of deterrence recalls not so much the Cold War (in the absence of real ideological conflict) but the type of competition typical of the 19th century. Ideological and political confusion only deepens the various imbalances that have accumulated in the world.
The rules and norms of international relations in effect during the Cold War have been destroyed over the past ten years, but new ones have not appeared to replace them.
Republished, with permission, from the Moscow Defence Brief, published by the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies