New America Foundation - The Financial Times
The bloody conflict over South Ossetia will have been good for something at least if it teaches two lessons. The first is that Georgia will never now get South Ossetia and Abkhazia back. The second is for the west: it is not to make promises that it neither can, nor will, fulfill when push comes to shove.
Georgia will not get its separatist provinces back unless Russia collapses as a state, which is unlikely. The populations and leaderships of these regions have repeatedly demonstrated their desire to separate from Georgia; and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, made it clear again and again that Russia would fight to defend these regions if Georgian forces attacked them.
The Georgians, like the Serbs in the case of Kosovo, should recognise reality and formally recognise the independence of these territories in return for a limited partition and an agreement to join certain Georgian-populated areas to Georgia. This would open the way either for an internationally recognised independence from Georgia or, more likely in the case of South Ossetia, joining North Ossetia as an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation. For the Georgians, the resolution of their territorial conflicts would make it more likely that they could eventually join the European Union – though after the Georgian administration’s initiation of this conflict, that cannot possibly be considered for many years.
Western governments should exert pressure on Georgia to accept this solution. These governments have a duty to do this because they, and most especially the US, bear a considerable share of the responsibility for the Georgian assault on South Ossetia and deserve the humiliation they are now suffering. It is true that western governments, including the US, always urged restraint on Tbilisi. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, was told firmly by the Bush administration that he must not start a war.
On the other hand, the Bush administration, with the full support of the US Congress, armed, trained and overwhelmingly financed the Georgian military. It did this although the dangers of war involving these forces were obvious and after the Georgian government had told its own people that these forces were intended for the recovery of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Bush administration, backed by Congress, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and most of the US media also adopted a highly uncritical attitude to both the undemocratic and the chauvinist aspects of the Saakashvili administration and its growing resemblance to that of the crazed nationalist leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in the early 1990s.
Instead, according to European officials, the Bush administration even put heavy pressure on US and international monitoring groups not to condemn flagrant abuses by Mr Saakashvili’s supporters during the last Georgian elections. Ossete and Abkhaz concerns were ignored, and the origins of the conflict were often wittingly or unwittingly falsified in accordance with Georgian propaganda.
Finally, and most importantly, the US pushed strongly for a Nato membership action plan for Georgia at the last alliance summit and would have achieved this if France and Germany had not resisted strongly. Given all this, it was not wholly unreasonable of Mr Saakashvili to assume that if he started a war with Russia and was defeated, the US would come to his aid.
Yet all this time, Washington had not the slightest intention of defending Georgia, and knew it. Quite apart from its lack of desire to go to war with Russia over a place almost no American had heard of until last week, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it does not have an army to send to the Caucasus.
The latest conflict is humiliating for the US, but it may have saved us from a far more catastrophic future: namely an offer of Nato membership to Georgia and Ukraine provoking conflicts with Russia in which the west would be legally committed to come to these countries’ aid – and would yet again fail to do so. There must be no question of this being allowed to happen – above all because the expansion of Nato would make such conflicts much more likely.
Instead, the west should demonstrate to Moscow its real will and ability to defend those east European countries that have already been admitted into Nato, and to which it is therefore legally and morally committed – especially the Baltic states. We should say this and mean it. Under no circumstances should we extend such guarantees to more countries that we do not intend to defend. To do so would be irresponsible, unethical and above all contemptible.
Source: Financial Times