A Little War That Shook the World is the impressive title of a book by renowned US political analyst Ronald D. Asmus, which is dedicated to the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. Although there is nothing particularly impressive in this title when taken by itself, behind it lies a much greater geopolitical context. This is what we want to discuss in this article.
Ongoing developments in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea by Russia following the conduct of a referendum on 16 March in which the population of Crimea had to decide whether to stay within Ukraine or join Russia, and the decision to further absorb Crimea into Russia, have all made it crystal clear that Russia's ambitious plan is to create a new, modernized empire: the so-called Eurasian Union. The August 2008 war was also part of this plan.
It is a fact that the geopolitical aim of Russia is to exert political and economic pressure on former Soviet republics in order to force them to join this modernized empire and to subject them to its influence. In geopolitical terms, this means the elimination of any political influence NATO and the European Union have on the post-Soviet space and, over time, the subjugation of all countries of the former Warsaw Bloc to Russian influence. This will allow Russia to once again geopolitically polarize the world between the West and the Russian Federation.
By analyzing where the geopolitical line ran in the August 2008 war, we will easily discern the context behind the title of the aforementioned book. The West's involvement in the events of August 2008 implied an attempt to contain Russia's imperial ambitions that jeopardized not only Georgia's foreign security, but also the security of the entire EU. However, the actions that Russia has been undertaking in Ukraine have shed light on the skepticism that several European states displayed in August 2008 when refraining from imposing any sanctions on Russia and limiting themselves to just supporting the non-recognition policy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such inaction enabled Russia to take similar brazen steps in Ukraine. It is now clear that Russia's war against Georgia in August 2008 and its current actions in Ukraine are part of the same plan and pursue the same geopolitical aim. It is worth noting that back then the then President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili and the President of Poland, the late Lech Kaczyński, warned the entire world that the August war was not only a matter concerning the regional Georgia-Russia relationship, but was part of Russia's larger geopolitical aims. They also warned that the August war was of crucial importance for Europe in terms of international security.
In August 2008, Russia's actions, which resulted in 20 percent of Georgia's territory being occupied, were physical, military manifestations of its imperial ambitions. With that step, Russia overtly showed the entire world that it has huge ambitions and will not permit the integration of post-Soviet states into NATO and the European Union. This is something that Russia will resist with military force, just like as it did in 2008 in the case of Georgia and as it is now doing in the case of Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and its aspirations for even greater claims.
Why does Russia oppose the European integration of Georgia and Ukraine?
The answer to this question was clearly articulated in November 2011: the then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared that "had Russia failed to defend South Ossetia, a number of countries would have joined NATO and that would have changed the geopolitical reality." If we analyze this statement, we will see the following picture: Georgia's integration into NATO would actually render Russia's occupation of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region senseless – this step would change those very geopolitical realities that Medvedev talked about in 2011. A change in geopolitical realities is the only way to start the process of the reintegration of the occupied territories into Georgia. In such a reality, Russia will have no other option but to take a defensive, and not an offensive, position. This means that Georgia's integration into NATO will lay the foundations for absolutely different processes, which may prove threatening for the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. This process will cause Russia to face a reality that would force it to take a step back from, rather than advance towards, the entire occupation of the North Caucasus. This process will encourage Russia's North Caucasian republics to shift focus towards the West by means of Georgia. This process is thus extremely dangerous for Russia. I think that the Georgian government must come to realize these political realities and consider the so-called "policy of sorting out relations" with Russia in this context.
Russia opposes everything that stands in the way of their recreation of empire. Here we are dealing with a classical, 19th century imperial model of statecraft. On the other hand, the attitude of the United States towards Georgia is, for example, fundamentally different. On 26 February, at the fourth plenary session of the US-Georgia Strategic Partnership Commission, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: "We also commend Georgia's progress on economic reform, and we urge the government to quickly implement its plans to spur trade and investment, including with the United States. Strict adherence to rule of law and a steadfast commitment to the process will encourage the confidence of investors and it will serve as a catalyst for integration with Europe and enhance Georgia's international reputation. We urge all Georgians to unite in looking forward and to leave the past in the past." Thus, Georgia's prospects are absolutely different in the case of the country becoming orientated towards the West and joining Euro-Atlantic structures.
Georgia's integration into NATO will have a strong counter-effect on the economic situation of Russia. The European Union will be much bolder in terms of seeking alternative energy supplies and the possibilities of gaining access to Caspian energy resources. This may entail a change in the export route of post-Soviet Central Asian (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) oil and gas (which now flows, at quite a cheap price, via Russia which then sells it to Europe at profit) towards the Trans-Caucasus direction. As a result of such a diversion, the proceeds to these Central Asian states from Europe will be quite large, whilst the Russian monopolistic price on energy resources for Europe will decrease and competition will emerge. This, in turn, will adversely affect Russia's interests as its budget mainly comprises oil and gas revenues.
The loss of Russian influence in the Caucasus will also increase the independence of post-Soviet Central Asian countries, which is something that definitely runs counter to Russia's interests to maintain a quite strong influence over these states. For its part, this will eventually lead to a fundamental change in Russia's economic infrastructure (oil and gas sales) and will result in huge costs. This will be tantamount to a catastrophe for the Russian economy and the country in general.
If Ukraine manages to join NATO and the EU with its territorial integrity intact, this will also provoke a change in the geopolitical reality. It will nudge Russia towards forgetting its imperial ambitions once and for all. Ukraine's European integration will actually force Russia to stop the monopolistic energy market that it now has with the EU. Consequently, Ukraine will become an independent actor in this energy route and will be able to pose certain conditions to Russia. In such a situation, as regards the Crimea, one day Russia will be left with no other choice but to abandon its military base in Sevastopol. This, in turn, will drastically weaken its position in the Black Sea. Russia uses its presence in Crimea to maintain the mechanisms of military control over Eastern Europe. The situation created in Ukraine today ensures that Russia faces great danger, but on the other hand, it might compel Russia take the ultimate risk – the Russian empire will either survive or its existence will end for good.
This is the very reason Russia uses military force to maintain its influence, first over Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine. We believe that there are no possible diplomatic means of forcing Russia to yield its positions. Therefore, the West must exert strong pressure on Russia, unless it wants to reanimate the Potsdam Conference. One must also note that Russia's current capacities lag far behind those of the Soviet Union in every sense. There is no country in the world today that supports Russia's policies towards Ukraine. If Russia manages to absorb Crimea, this will be a complete failure of international law and must not be allowed to stand.
It must be noted that the West's support of the non-recognition policy after 2008 and its placement of Georgia in a regime of strategic patience, in terms of the occupied territories and NATO integration, is a matter of political conjuncture. If the West adopts the same position in respect to Crimea, this will provide certain relief for Russia and will also endanger the eastern part of Ukraine which is largely populated by Russian-speaking people. Therefore, a tough position from the West and the use of economic or other sanctions must force Russia to drop its ambitious plan to continue pursuing its interests at the expense and occupation of other countries.
Finally, going back to where I started – the entire context of the phrase "A Little War That Shook the World" becomes clear in the current situation. The Georgian government must realize that Georgia, along with Ukraine, is the most important point in global politics. Therefore, with maximum involvement in the process, we must succeed in approximating our interests with those of the West. There is no shame in admitting that, given the situation emerging today, sorting out relations with Russia is an extremely unlikely policy. Unfortunately, the chance for Georgia and Ukraine to become viable members of international geopolitics is a political destiny that converges with a very sore point for Russia. We do not think that this can be solved through agreement with Russia, so we must, therefore, be ready to overcome some very powerful obstacles.