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Hunter: Russia is Long Run ‘Loser’ in Georgia Conflict

Interviewee: Robert E. Hunter, Senior Advisor, RAND Corporation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 3, 2008

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Robert E. Hunter, the U.S. Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during the Clinton administration, says that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili miscalculated badly in sending his troops into South Ossetia in mid-August. This move precipitated a conflict with Russia and the Russian recognition of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. In the long run, however, Hunter says that "Russia is the loser here." At a time when the Russians need Western investment and expertise, "Putin has gone much too far and does not understand exactly what he is doing, not just stirring up a hornet's nest in all the countries that used to belong to the Communist world, but also leading people in the West to ask whether they can do business with this man."

It'll soon be a month since the conflict in Georgia erupted, and we still have some Russian troops occupying parts of Georgia in and around the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What has been the European reaction in general to all this?

First, of course, we have to go back to Donald Rumsfeld's division between Old and New Europe [after the start of the Iraq war in 2003], something that actually was just a throwaway line but became kind of iconic. Those countries that were part of the Warsaw Pact and are now part of NATO, and other former Soviet republics like Ukraine, which are not part of NATO obviously, have been deeply affected and worried—if not fearful—about what has happened. For example, in Poland, where the government had been trying to drive a hard bargain with the United States over the deployment of an anti-missile site, the day after the Russian invasion of Georgia, their position collapsed, and the U.S. secretary of state went over there and actually signed the agreement with the Poles soon thereafter.

The British and French have rhetorically been quite strong, but some other countries like Germany and Italy, which are heavily dependent upon Russian hydrocarbons, particularly natural gas, have taken a more muted position. In part this is about the issue of dependence, or as the European Union said on Monday in its declaration on the matter, "we have a lot of interdependence," and this is a fact of life. That means the European Council considers that given the interdependence between the European Union and Russia, and the global problems they are facing, there is no desirable alternative to a strong relationship with cooperation, trust, dialogue, etc. Of course they go on to say that Russia overreacted, but it's also a question of not wanting to descend into another Cold War, having seen the virtues of following what President George H.W. Bush called the attempt to create a Europe whole and free and in peace. I also think a number of people in Europe don't believe Georgia in itself is very important. Also they have noted the role that has been played by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who may have given an excuse to the Russians to do what they wanted to do all along.

You mean his sending Georgian troops into South Ossetia to try and end its efforts at breaking away?

Yes, and by all accounts that was not just a response to the kind of tactical things that were being done by South Ossetians, aided by the Russians. By Georgian standards it was a really major military action going into Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital], and obviously a miscalculation in terms of what the Russians might do. Now a lot of Europeans would say, "Why didn't somebody, meaning the United States, keep this guy under control?" Some Europeans would also say—I'm not justifying it, I'm just reporting it — that the effort at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April to give what's called a Membership Action Plan to both Ukraine and Georgia, pressed by the United States, was a problem for them because of what it might say to the Russians, but also a clear recognition on the part of just about all Europeans that they weren't prepared to do what the NATO alliance is fundamentally about, namely, to defend an allied country against aggression. Nobody was prepared to go to Georgia's defense, including the United States.

What actually happened in Bucharest was, in terms of causing a potential problem, worse than anybody's fears about a Membership Action Plan [MAP]. As a compromise or face-saver for President Bush, the Europeans in their usual cynical, hypocritic way, said that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO eventually. Well, that is the moment at which a country gives a commitment to another country for security. Putin read it that way and Saakashvili read it that way. Putin said "I'll teach these guys a lesson; they really are encroaching on my sphere of influence." And Saakashvili apparently believed that if he tried to unify his country he'd get backed up by the West.

Now Vice President Cheney is due in Georgia shortly, and he's also going to Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Is this a dangerous moment? Do you think that the United States is going to make some kind of security commitment to these countries?

I don't think we're going to make any military commitments because we could not carry them out. I don't think I would have sent the vice president. I would have sent somebody else, like the secretary of state again or a delegation that would involve members of Congress of both parties. I do believe now we have to reassure the Georgians that we stand with their leadership and with their democracy. They are part of our world. Yes, in the fullness of time they will join Euro-Atlantic institutions. And here, frankly, it's more important all around for Ukraine and Georgia to be part of the European Union rather than NATO. I would start pumping major economic, not just humanitarian, but economic development and investment into Georgia and into Ukraine. The European Union, incidentally, in its usual half-hearted way, said "we will call an international conference," but it's different from saying we hereby pledge certain amounts of money. This is what you have to do.

The real way of engaging these countries in the West is not by giving military guarantees you won't honor, but by providing them with the support for democratization and the support for development that will indeed give them a greater sense of national hopefulness for the future. If you go all the way back to the original NATO enlargement in the 1990s, we believed in the West what the countries in central Europe most needed was the European Union. On the NATO side, we said what they need is a partnership for peace and to renovate their militaries. Then they came back and said, "We will not feel confident doing either of those things unless we are taken off the international chess board and have a sense of security that we won't become a plaything for outside powers anymore."

In 2001, Putin became the new president of Russia, and under his leadership Russia took a much harder line. Do you think he was provoked or is this just Putin's own thinking that he felt that Russia was too subservient to the West?

The latter, clearly. He made an effort to reassert first his own primacy within the country and recentralization of the country and to erode institutions that might challenge his authority. As to the external world, you can say, "Yes, great powers always are going to want to have areas around them that are not going to be challenging." We do it. Look at our attitude toward Cuba, eighteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Monroe Doctrine. But the objective of what NATO and the European Union was doing was to say, "We are going to bring these people into Euro-Atlantic institutions, into a globalized society."

What's going to happen as a result of Georgia?

Russia is the loser here. It is interesting that when Putin decided to push back, he did so at a remote region next to his own country. He did it in a place where no one really cared about in geopolitical terms, as opposed to human terms, democratic terms, and the like. It also took him four days. Why is Russia the loser? If you look back to when it happened, it happened at a time when the whole world recognized that China is an amazingly competent and powerful country. They produce more innovation in a week in China than they do in Russia in ten years. There's all this incredible space in eastern Siberia, bordered by 1.3 billion Chinese, that's being rapidly depopulated by Russians. Russia's losing population at a faster clip than any other country in the developed world, even faster than some of the European countries with low birth rates. And the Russians need the outside world.

Why?

If you look to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, his five point speech of the other day, it's interesting. The first three points are, "We want to be part of the real world." One of them is, America can't run everything. We already knew that. He is underscoring the need to be part of the outside world. Of course the European Union underscored it, but Putin has gone much too far and does not understand exactly what he is doing, not just stirring up a hornet's nest in all the countries that used to belong to the Communist world but also leading people in the West to ask whether they can do business with this man. That involves investment, it involves creditworthiness, it involves the sanctity of Russian investments abroad, it involves cooperation with the European Union, and in fact the strongest thing that's been done so far is what the EU decided yesterday, to suspend meetings on the EU-Russia partnership program. What they've said is, "We're going to send a team to look, and we're going to judge whether the Russians are following the six points of the cease-fire agreement with French President Sarkozy, and decide whether it's worth having this EU-Russian summit on November 14." This is done without a lot of shrill talk, it's done outside of the context of the United States, with our campaign rhetoric and all the memories of the old relationship. The Europeans are getting it about right in the low-key way of saying, "If you want to be a partner in the outside world, and by God you need it, you can't behave like this." Putin therefore has to judge whether to throw away opportunities to be engaged in the outside world.

Maybe Putin will make the wrong decision. At the moment, Russia is Saudia Arabia with trees. What I'm getting at is, if they want to play in the outside world, it's not like the old days when they had a choice. They don't have a choice. The last regime of the Soviet Union collapsed over the failure of having made that choice. Of getting outclassed. If Putin says, "Having my sphere of influence is more important than being involved in the outside world," then Russia's going to pay a huge price for it. On the other hand, if he says "We've made our point, people will show us more respect in the future. We're now going to show we can be positive members of the international community," then he will have shown some stewardship of Russia with the outside world. If he makes the wrong choice we can live with it. He needs us a lot more than the other way around.

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