Monday, August 11, 2008

Fresh Out of Statesmen, Awash In Ideologues

Who will negotiate with Russian strongman Vlad Putin? It won't be Georgia's Saakashvili. He's finished. It will probably take some sort of intermediary, a stand-in for Georgia, and that would be?

The Russia-Georgia conflict cries out for statesmen but, sadly, all we've got right now are ideologues and it shows. Ideologues are at their very worst in situations like this. They have little credibility and less persuasiveness. They're often one-trick ponies. When they run up against a nation that's not vulnerable to their coercion, we usually find that ideologues revert to angry denunciation and hollow gestures - tantrums, foot-stamping.

Unfortunately for our side, Vlad Putin is a hard case. When it comes to negotiators that pretty much rules out the Bushies or the Brownies. The Guardian suggests our intermediary might be Sarkozy.

What's unclear is just what is to be negotiated. Here we may run into considerable asymmetry. What Russia is after may be a far more expansive than what Georgia wants or what Europe wants.

From Moscow's perspective, Georgia may be a metaphor for its greater struggle against a steadily encroaching NATO. If the Russians can't roll back recent NATO expansion into the Balkan and Caucasus regions, it may still serve Russian interests to sow doubts about the alliance and the security it truly offers among NATO's new, eastern members.

Would NATO truly defend Romania against Russia? What do you think? Of course what I think and what you think doesn't matter. What's important to Putin is the impression left in the minds of those in places like Sofia and Bucharest, Kiev and Riga.

Georgia's Saakashvili was playing a bluff when he attacked South Ossetia. He's not stupid. He must have expected a different outcome than what he's facing just a week later. What's not clear is why. It will be fascinating when, months from now, Saakashvili spills the beans about why he pulled the trigger without noticing the gun was pointed at his own head.

A disastrous military adventure leading to the permanent loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will surely spell the end of Saakashvili's political future. It will also at least somewhat destabilize eastern Europe. America, after all, is in no position to reinstate Cold War-style militarization through this region.

What we probably won't see anytime soon are the ripples now being felt by the NATO alliance. Whether Washington or Brussels wish to acknowledge it, NATO has suffered strains and at least hairline fractures over Afghanistan. There were some members who were uncomfortable with Bush's stampede to expand the alliance into eastern Europe. The Georgia debacle will do nothing to ease those concerns and doubts.

Russia now says it will halt its blitz into Georgia short of Tbilisi. It's also said it won't recognize Saakashvili. Probably everybody agrees on that one. Imagine Saakashvili sitting at the table and signing off on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He'd be hanging from a light post within weeks.

So an outsider will do the negotiating for Georgia and, by implication, for the rest of Europe and (to some extent) NATO itself. Sarkozy? Perhaps but he too is an ideologue, not a statesman. The risk to that is that ideologues will probably see this as a simple question of Georgia and a couple of autonomous regions to be stripped from the loser. That's an approach that would thrill Putin if only because it leaves all of the greater issues and his future options unmentioned and wide open.

We'd do well not to let the ramifications of this fiasco escape us. This isn't an isolated matter. To Putin and the Kremlin it's a couple of moves that may have a telling effect later in this chess game.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The question to be faced in a Obama administration is can Europe (and possibly Canada) play a role in defending Romania and the Baltic states. Sarkozy and the French have the moral imperative to defend Eastern Europe. Georgia and Azerbaijan is another matter when scores of refugees begin to seek asylum in the beaches of Italy.

Sarkozy can play Talleyrand all he wants, but the matter is. Can the French legion deliver?