Russian military operations in Georgia and the finalisation of agreement between the US and Poland on the stationing of missile interceptors in Poland are two developments that are likely to have far-reaching but adverse impact on Russia’s relations with the West.
Even Western analysts concede that the recent military conflict was provoked by the Georgian President’s misplaced military adventure on August 7 when Georgian forces pounded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The Russian military entered Georgia with tanks and aircraft in a swift response. Nearly 2000 people died within a couple of days.
This is the first time since 1990 that Russia intervened militarily in a sovereign country to protect its interests. By giving a strong military riposte to Georgian provocations, Russia has sent clear signals to both the West as well as its own allies.
To the West it has conveyed that it will not take lying down the Western attempts to undermine Russia’s interests in its own backyard. To the countries of the former Soviet space, the Russian message is: Russia will protect its interests in the region of its influence come what may.
Russian-Georgian relations have been strained for some time over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions which have broken away from Georgia and want independence. Abkhazia has been demanding independence while South Ossetia wants to join Russia. Russia has issued Russian passports to the 80,000 inhabitants of South Ossetia. Russian peacekeepers, nominally under the CIS umbrella, have been present in both regions since 1991.
Russia has many grievances vis-à-vis the West. In 2004, Georgia saw regime change which brought a pro-US government to power. NATO’s recent offer to Georgia of the alliance’s membership at some future date has annoyed Russia no end. The Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence earlier this year also upset Russia deeply. The West has refused to take heed of Russia’s concerns.
The US has supported Georgia all these years. This created an impression in Georgia that it enjoys US protection. But, during the crisis, the US exercised restraint not to get involved militarily in the conflict. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi on August 15, 2008 and met Georgian President Saakashvili. The US sent humanitarian aid to Georgia. President Bush has made several statements of support for Georgia. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has hinted at a complete rethink on US relations with Russia.
Russia’s military campaign in Georgia has stunned the CIS. CIS, currently headed by Kyrgyzstan, has not been able to come up with a substantive statement. Russia expects full support from the CIS which has not been forthcoming.
US-Russian relations have been made worse by the US-Poland agreement to station 10 US missile interceptors in Poland in the next 18 months. The agreement between the US and the Czech Republic on the stationing of early warning radar is likely to be concluded next. The US has rejected Russia’s various proposals for collaboration in missile defence in lieu of the installation of BMD components in Europe. The disagreement between the two countries will further increase tensions.
Russia has long been opposed to NATO’s eastward expansion but has not been able to do anything about it. NATO’s invitation to Ukraine to join NATO has caused deep resentment in Russia. NATO has decided to extend full support to Georgia. It is planning to set up a NATO-Georgia Commission to speed up Georgia’s eventual membership of NATO.
President Medvedev has proposed to Europe a new security treaty which would integrate Russia with Europe and the US in an inclusive security framework. The West has been lukewarm to the Russian proposals.
Russia holds several levers vis-à-vis the West. Being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it can thwart the West’s agenda on Iran. Russia’s cooperation with the West on non-proliferation, terrorism and the Middle East will also be affected. The most important of Russia’s cards is the energy card. Europe imports about 40 per cent of its energy requirements from Russia. It will need access to Russian energy resources. Further, Russia is also active in denying to Europe the energy resources in Central Asia through the Nabbuco pipeline which would bypass Russia. Russia has close economic ties with Central Asian countries. This can be used as an instrument of pressure. Central Asian countries are wary of the Western agenda of democracy promotion. So they cannot afford to anger Russia. Yet, they will be worried about Russia’s willingness to use force to defend its interest.
The West cannot ignore Russia’s resurgence any more. Russia continues to possess nuclear weapons. It is also engaged in an ambitious programme of military modernization. It is one of the top exporters of arms in the world. This gives Russia considerable leverage over its relations with the West. The resumption of patrols by long range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons and the modernization of nuclear capable missiles is also a factor in Russia-Western relations.
Russia has some weaknesses too. It needs Western investments and trade for economic well being. Despite impressive economic growth, Russia has not been able to overcome the problem of poverty. Regional imbalances remain worrisome. Demographic imbalance is also a matter of worry. Russia aspires to be a member of WTO but has not been able to become one because of objections by the West. The Georgian imbroglio will raise apprehensions within the CIS about Russia’s intentions. Russian policies will be constrained by these factors.
Russia is sensitive to its international image. It is particularly proud of its membership of G-8. There are suggestions in the West that Russia should be expelled from G-8. NATO is also considering whether it should continue with NATO-Russia Council forum set up in 2002. It has said, following the Georgian crisis, that it cannot continue to do “business as usual” with Russia.
While both sides have downplayed the talk of return to the “cold war”, the fact remains that the Georgian conflict marks a new low in Russia’s relations with the West. Both sides would need to show exemplary foresight and restraint to prevent further deterioration in their relations. To begin with, the West needs to show sensitivity to Russia’s genuine security concerns and integrate Russia into an inclusive security architecture. Russia, on its part, will need to reassure countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia of its peaceful intentions.
China would be watching the evolving situation with great attention. It might exploit Russian discomfort to improve its own standing in the CIS space. The SCO summit meeting on August 28 in Dushanbe might clarify the SCO’s stand.
The growing tensions between Russia and the West do not augur well for international peace. India has strategic partnerships with Russia, the EU as well as with the US. It has abiding interests in the CIS. It is also an observer at the SCO. While India is not directly affected by the developments in the Caucasus, it will nevertheless need to carefully analyse the implications of the recent developments for its own foreign policy and security.