The crisis in Georgia seemed to catch much of the West napping.
Coinciding with the opening day of the Beijing Games — no Olympic truce in these cynical times — Europe and the U.S. were reduced to spluttering about sovereignty and demanding a ceasefire even as Russian forces advanced towards Tbilisi and reports of mass civilian casualties began to emerge. But beneath the headlines, the crisis poses serious questions for Europe and its strategy, such as it is, for dealing with a resurgent and potentially menacing Russia.
Europe has prided itself, in recent times, on the success of so-called “soft” power in achieving its goals. This can be seen most clearly in the enlargement of the European Union from 12 member states in 1986 to 27 today — with the dangling carrot of EU membership acting as a catalyst for reform in countries across Eastern Europe. This forms the basis for European policy, not only towards the former Yugoslavia and erstwhile Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia (who form the object of the EU’s “neighborhood policy”), but also towards Russia itself. By locking former enemies into the international system through ever-closer economic, cultural, and political ties, so the theory goes, conflict becomes a less and less attractive means of solving problems. EU diplomats are fond of implying that Americans are from Mars, forever sabre-rattling and warning of air strikes, while Europeans are from Venus, preferring saturation love-bombing of their targets. The American retort is less flattering; as George Bush might put it, the problem with Europeans is that they don’t have a word for cojones.
The failure of the ongoing EU/U.S. good cop/bad cop routine with the Iranian regime demonstrates the limits of soft power when dealing with a regime that’s not interested in playing the game by your rules. The mullahs are unimpressed by smooth European officials whose mantra seems to be to speak softly, but on no account carry a stick. Russia’s contempt for Western criticism merely emphasizes the point. This is acutely problematic if you’re Georgian, obviously, but it also carries long-term problems for Europe itself, because Russia’s actions have repercussions far beyond the Caucasus.
The Russians justified their military intervention with reference to the situation of ethnic Russian residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and indeed the Georgian president had played into their hands by sending the tanks into the former at the beginning of the month in a thuggish, heavy-handed attempt to quell separatist sentiment. This gave Moscow all the cover it needed; after all, it gave the citizens of South Ossetia Russian passports in 2003. (This trick is worth keeping an eye on; Ukrainian politicians allege that Russia has been doling out passports to residents of the Crimea, too.)