You Just Squeeze

by Joshua Foust on 8/26/2008 · 2 comments

One unknown in the continuing aftermath of the Umpteenth Russo-Georgian War is what kinds of pressures and responses the West could apply against Russia to force a more rapid withdrawal, and possibly even prevent a repeat in any other post-Sovite Republics. RFE/RL Executive Editor John O’Sullivan sat down with Georgian Reintegration Minister Temur Iakobashvili to talk it over:

RFE/RL: You now have a situation in which Russia is in possession of Georgian territory. If Georgia, at that point, joins NATO — some point in the future — there isn’t any real prospect of NATO taking action of a military kind to remove the Russians. How do you think NATO or the EU can lever the Russians out, and by what other methods?

Iakobashvili: It seems to me that largely we are talking about political and economic measures, and not military. Most of Russia’s oligarchs, most of Russia’s government officials — in some cases they are the same — have their assets in the West. So, using a very strong connotation, you are holding their balls — just squeeze a little bit.

RFE/RL: So far, there’s been extremely little pressure of that kind.

This is probably because Russia actually has the west by the balls. Ignoring the enormous energy-shaped elephant in the room, if the Anglosphere pushes things too much, they might lose an alternate supply route to Afghanistan:

Russia played a trump card in its strategic poker game with the West yesterday by threatening to suspend an agreement allowing Nato to take supplies and equipment to Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia.

The agreement was struck at a Nato summit in April to provide an alternative supply route to the road between the Afghan capital and the Pakistani border, which has come under attack from militants on both sides of the frontier this year.

This was a possibility explored weeks ago by Christian, and just yesterday Péter (who has been discussing the problem of supply chokepoints in Pakistan for months) noted that militants aren’t even waiting for goods to enter Khyber or Spin Boldak—people are finding them now in Karachi and setting them ablaze. The importance of a northern supply route cannot be underestimated—especially if we’re to conjure the magic resources needed to supply another 3-5 brigades in Afghanistan.

But even pretending the West could “squeeze” Russia by threatening some of its oligarchs’ assets seems far-fetched. Vladimir Putin is already floating the idea of ditching some agreements made during Russia’s WTO ascension talks—right when Dmitri Medvedev was hinting that Moscow should cut ties with NATO.

That this is partially driven by Russia’s inability to offer the West much beyond oil and hackers is immaterial: the point remains that the West in fact has very little leverage to apply to Russia, beyond canceling their G8 membership. While some would argue that this is daft because Russia is a Great Power, in fact thinking Russia is Great in any way, shape or form is just batty. You can argue about regional powers all you want, but the point remains Russia shows very little interest in being a constructive partner in globalization (neither does China, but that’s a separate point). It’s nice to fall into a Barnettian fantasy-land typical of Navy guys about how everyone can come together because we’re all the same with the same interests, but it is inescapable that Russia has all the power in a very limited geographic area the U.S. simply cannot influence.

Outside that area, however, Russia has virtually none. Which just reinforces the point made many times in this space—nothing should be done about it, because in a very real sense nothing has changed.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Eli August 26, 2008 at 9:42 pm

much as I like Georgia, I pretty much agree with you. What we’ve all learned so far is that we don’t really understand how decisions are being made in “post”-Putin Russia, and that we misunderestimate Russia’s adherence to what westerners consider international behavioral norms. Any reaction that we consider calculated could easily snowball into something nobody wants. I’m sad for all of the former Soviet citizens who were proud of their new or new-found national independence who might now be realizing that their independence is no more assured than it was between the world wars.

Probably the best option for now, as you seem to suggest, is to simply stop paying so much attention to Russia on issues that don’t directly involve it. If Russia is willing to spend so much of its international political capital on its “near abroad”, it’s got to realize that there is nothing left for the rest of the world.

Another interesting point is that since the North Atlantic treaty was ratified by Congress, I assume it would be illegal for the US Government not come to the defense, militarily, of a NATO country under attack. I’m pretty sure this point was not clearly made when the Clinton and Bush administrations were advocating NATO expansion to the Baltics and other former Eastern bloc states, and I don’t think its made clear now, when administration officials advocate including Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, that we would be legally obligated to war with a nuclear power if Russia invaded a Georgia that was part of NATO. I’m all for countries joining western organizations if they want to and have a reasonable chance to institute western norms domestically, but the western public should understand what admitting new states into defensive treaty organizations entails before it happens.

thanks for all the free webspace!

Joshua Foust August 26, 2008 at 10:32 pm

Eli, you get +10 pts. for “misunderestimate.”

About the use of force in defense of an ally, I believe that is what Article Five of the NATO charter states. However, I am unclear if a country must invoke it or not. The text makes it appear automatic, however, I recall after 9/11 there was a great hemming and hawing about whether or not the U.S. should “invoke” Article Five.

But I really don’t know on that front. I’ve not studied that aspect to any depth. You are right, however, that we need to be exactly certain that a country is “worth” admitting to a mutual defense pact. Given Georgia’s recklessness in the face of even provisional Western support, I’d say that’s a bad idea.

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