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Russia's Offensive in Georgia a Signal to NATO to Stay Away from Its 'Space'

Interviewee: F. Stephen Larrabee, Corporate Chair in European Security, RAND Corporation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 26, 2008

F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Eastern Europe, says Russia's invasion of Georgia was meant to demonstrate Moscow's sensitivity to NATO's moves into what were formerly parts of the Soviet Union. He says the actions in Georgia were in effect a "sideshow" to Ukraine, which also has been seeking NATO membership and is strategically more important to Moscow. "It's an effort by the Russians to try to halt the expansion of Western influence into the former Soviet space, particularly the expansion of NATO," he says. Larrabee urged a clear response from the West to penalize Russia but added: "It's very important that this spiral of action and reaction not be allowed to get out of hand."

You've been a student of East-West relations for some time. Where do you think these relations are going in the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict, which is still not completely over?

The first thing that needs to be said is there is obviously going to be some consequences and fallout in relations with Russia. And it's quite clear that some things will be put on hold, such as the suspension of some of the meetings with Russia within NATO. But the larger danger here is that there will be an action-reaction spiral, with one side taking an action and the other side reacting strongly to it. And you've seen this already beginning with the Russian reaction to the signing with Poland of the agreement on the deployment of a missile defense system in Poland.

This reminds me in a way of certain events during the Cold War, where the Soviets did some things in their own zone of occupation in Germany, and we responded by fusing the British and American zones, and they responded to that. And within a period of two or three years, you had the making of a real confrontation. I'm not suggesting that we are going back to Cold War, but this spiral of action and reaction could easily lead to a more confrontational policy over the next year or so.

What would be your advice to the next administration on how to deal with all of this?

As far as Georgia itself is concerned, we have to make clear to the Russians that they have to withdraw from Georgian territory and that there are costs and consequences for violating the sovereignty of Georgia. On the other hand, as I said, it's very important that this spiral of action and reaction not be allowed to get out of hand. One should recognize that the Russians  have been stepping up pressure on Georgia for some time, especially since the Europeans and the United States recognized the independence of Kosovo from Russian-backed Serbia. The Russians indicated  that the independence of Kosovo would have consequences for entities like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which had declared their independence from Georgia.

This was a crisis that has been brewing for many months and had its origins more broadly in the downturn in relations with Russia after the end of the Cold War. The Russians feel that the West has exploited their weakness. And now that they are stronger, and particularly in the oil and energy front, they want to renegotiate the terms of their relations with the West. President Vladimir Putin's speech in Munich in February 2007 was an important signal of  the hardening of the Russian line. He essentially said:  "Enough is enough. We are going to defend our own interests."

In this sense, what you see in Georgia is the Russians drawing a line in the sand saying that they have strategic interests and they are going to defend them. The Russians were concerned about the erosion of their influence in the former Soviet space. The Russian invasion was a reaction to the destabilizing impulses unleashed by the Orange Revolution [in Ukraine] and the Rose Revolution [in Georgia]. It's an effort by the Russians to try to halt the expansion of Western influence into the former Soviet space, particularly the expansion of NATO. It's not the beginning of a new effort to try to expand Russian influence into the West, but rather an attempt to maintain their influence in the former Soviet space, which they felt was eroding.

In the aftermath of all of this, the people who argued against the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the Clinton administration are now coming forward again and saying they were right. What was your position at that time?

I believed that the first two expansions of NATO to incorporate states like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania, as well as the Baltic States, were correct. But it's quite a different situation when NATO's talking about moving into the former Soviet space. We have to be very careful not to make defense commitments to countries that we are not willing or able to carry out. If Poland, or let's say Hungary, were threatened, we would have a consensus in NATO to take action to defend them. In the case of Georgia and Ukraine, some of the NATO allies are not quite sure that these are "European" countries, and they are not ready to take on new defense commitments to these countries. The United States has to be very careful about making commitments to countries unless it's absolutely sure that the commitments can be carried out.

You've been an advisor on some projects with the Georgian government. Can you provide any insight on why President Mikheil Saakashvili decided to send his troops into South Ossetia when he had to know that the Russia would answer with force?

You have to look at this and see both his personality and his history. He didn't get to where he is today by sitting around and waiting. He became president because he made a daring move, which everyone told him not to make, to unseat President Eduard Shevardnadze. Then in early 2004 he successsfully retook the rebel province of Adjara, in a bold and daring move that caught the Russians by surprise. The basic history has been one where he has succeeded by acting  unconventionally. He is a very self-confident individual. He thought that if he took decisive and quick action to retake South Ossetia, the Russians would be forced to accept the outcome, as they had been in Adjara. But he underestimated the Russian response.

In the months prior to the invasion the Russians had been moving their troops up to the South Ossetian border. They had conducted maneuvers in July which were essentially a dress rehearsal for the invasion. The Russians essentially sucker punched Saakashvili and he walked into the trap. This time they were prepared and when he launched his attack to retake South Ossetia, they moved decisively with overwhelming force. And he now has to pay the consequences. He gambled recklessly against U.S. advice and this time he lost in a very big way.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been urging, as he has for some time, that Russia be asked to leave the G8 [Group of Eight leading industrial states]. There has been talk of barring Russia from joining the World Trade Organization and there is talk about the collapse of the U.S.-Russia civil nuclear agreement. Where do we stand on various arms control agreements with Russia?


The START Agreement [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] has to be renegotiated since it expires in December 2009. Obviously this will probably not begin soon, but it's not as if we're penalizing the Russians by not going forward. The larger point is that we have to be very careful in deciding what types of things we want to suspend and what types of things we don't want to. The idea of expelling Russia from the G8 is a nonstarter. We wouldn't get support from our European allies, and I don't think that it would have much of an impact on Russia. The blocking of Russian entry into the World Trade Organization [WTO] would be quite different. This is something that the Russians really want and need. Therefore we have some leverage. We should demand that the Russians withdraw their troops from Georgia and we should not support their entering the WTO until they comply. On the arms control negotiations, it doesn't seem to me that there is much point in starting them right now when relations with Russia are so tense. We shouldn't say that we will never go forward, but we should not do so right now. We shouldn't cut off or suspend things that are in our own interest.

It's unclear to me if the Russians themselves realized how much they were going to strain their relations with the European Union or the United States because of the move into Georgia.

They underestimated the impact on the West, but I don't think that would have stopped them. The invasion was something that they felt  had to be done to protect their interests in the Caucasus and the former Soviet space more broadly. There were a number of motivations for the invasion. One, of course, was to punish the Georgian president and to teach him a lesson. Beyond that, the Russians were intent on sending a broader message to the West: to say, in effect, "We are ready to protect our interest in the former Soviet space and use force if necessary." They also wanted to send a  message to the countries of the former Soviet space that in a crisis they can't depend on NATO or the United States. The Russians may have underestimated the economic costs of their action, but when push came to shove, they decided that this was something that they had to do and that they weren't going to be pushed around anymore.

I guess they were particularly upset at the last NATO summit, which declared that Georgia and Ukraine should eventually become members of NATO.

Oh, absolutely. The issue here is not simply Georgia. Georgia is a sideshow. What the Russians are really concerned about is Ukraine. Georgia's entry into NATO wouldn't have major strategic consequences for Russia. Ukraine on the other hand, is a very different matter. That would have much greater strategic consequences and destroy any possibility of trying to develop a Slavic Union composed of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. It would also have an effect on the Russian defense industry because they don't want to break those ties between the defense industries of Russia and Ukraine. So the strategic consequences of Ukraine joining NATO far exceed those of Georgia. In short, this is much more about Ukraine.

The real question for the United States in the aftermath of what happened in Georgia is whether this is the right time to accelerate efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO? I would think this would be a time when we want to be cautious and careful.

The White House announced today that Vice President Cheney will go to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Italy early next month. The purpose of the trip is to consult on matters of mutual interest. Is this wise?

In this case it's very important that we send a high-level official to show support for these countries, but showing support by sending the vice president for discussions is one thing. Accelerating NATO membership with all its implications is quite another.

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