October 22, 2008

08.08.2008 and the Emergence of a New Security Paradigm in the West

Russia’s war against Georgia should make even the most hardened sceptics and the most optimistic flower children realise that today Russia and the West are pursuing essentially conflicting aims and employing divergent strategies for their achievement.

25.09.2008, Maria Mälksoo
Russia’s war against Georgia should make even the most hardened sceptics and the most optimistic flower children realise that today Russia and the West are pursuing essentially conflicting aims and employing divergent strategies for their achievement.
The Berlin Wall – the tangible reminder of an almost half-century-long Cold War – fell on November 9, 1989. The veil was torn from the political ambitions of today’s Russia in Georgia on August 8, 2008, when history returned in the form of a traditional geopolitical great power competition, symbolised by the Russian war machine rolling over its smaller and weaker neighbour. There is yet a third crucial juncture in this series of historic dates – September 11, 2001 − that fundamentally shifted the focus of the Western global security paradigm from its post-Cold War confusion to waging the war on terror.
Does the Georgian conflict mark the beginning of a new Cold War in the relationship between Russia and the West? Are there signs of a shift towards a new (or a long-forgotten old) security paradigm in western political consciousness? What is an era in the context of security policy and what does it actually mean that a new era has begun? And what kind of West are we referring to when we talk about the emergence of a new western security paradigm? After all we, the East Europeans, have never overcome our scepticism about Russia despite the post-Cold War euphoria induced by democratic peace; yet today we are as well – at least formally – the West.
Moreover, this raises the separate issue of whether it is wise to attribute similar significance to August 8 as to September 11, which indeed marked a paradigm shift in global security, because by doing so we would, in a way, further the aims of Russia. As is known, it was Russia that claimed that the war in Georgia started on August 8 when the Georgian forces tried to retake Tskhinvali. In fact, the separatist South Ossetian forces had begun to provoke a military attack days earlier, not to mention the many months of preparing the political groundwork and amassing Russian forces in the region.
On the one hand, it is clear that the war in Georgia has brought the ‘cheerleaders’ in international relations – those analysing and shaping global politics – to a more realistic register. Against the backdrop of the still ‘marinating’ Georgian conflict, it is striking how accurate were the sobering predictions about Russia by Robert Kagan and Edward Lucas , whom the more gullible analysts used to regard as ordinary doom mongers. On the other hand, various significant factors – such as Europe’s energy dependency on Russia and the all-too-human inertia in admitting the need for change – should make us cautious about predicting any fundamental changes in the West’s current policy towards Russia. This despite the fact that Russia’s aggressive imperialism has dealt a fatal blow to the ‘I want to believe’ mentality prevalent in the West during the 1990s, when everybody was hoping that Russia would – against all odds – undergo a process of democratisation and alter its former patterns of behaviour (such as strong efforts to influence the domestic politics of its neighbours and military attacks).
We should rather ask ourselves why it was widely assumed in the West that Russia would undergo a fundamental change after the Cold War in the first place. What does such an assumption reveal about the West’s collective (sub)consciousness and about the marks the Cold War has left on it? Why did the West continue to believe in Russia’s capability to change, even against the background of the clear signs of danger? Why did the Westerners ignore for so long the East Europeans’ calls for a reality-check on Russia? There are clearly more questions than answers today.
In the 1990s, the West was over-zealous in its empathy for Russia, exhibiting in its strategic risk assessments the unfortunate tendency to evaluate and to predict the behaviour of others on the basis of its own standards. The West has underestimated the role of Russia as a traditional great power in security matters. This has been a strategic mistake by the West, as it has ignored for years Russia’s blatant ambitions to be considered unique and to receive special treatment. In today’s post-modern Europe, however, it is not correct to admit that someone is different because this will be often seen as overtly racist behaviour. At least, it was not a popular pastime to emphasise such differences in the post-Cold War context where cross-border cooperation was in vogue. Sadly, the misguided attempts to ignore Russia’s yearning for uniqueness and special treatment have backfired, leaving us with the classical egocentric (in this case Eurocentric) attitude – we believe (because we want to believe) that ‘they’ are essentially like ‘us’ or that they at least want to become like us. The current situation in Russia, however, points to the fact that they do not want that at all – instead they are interested in doing everything ‘their way’, while at the same time desperately seeking approval from others.
You got to have at least some respect!
According to rational actor theories in international politics, it is assumed that in addition to maintaining a more or less stable and coherent self-image, all actors are capable of making decisions on a rational basis, which usually means that they want to maximise their own profits. Yet the western analysts who uphold the rationality principle find themselves in a peculiar predicament when interpreting Russia’s actions in Georgia. It is obvious that Russia’s behaviour is driven by a different logic that often follows some kind of a magical or emotional pattern unrelated to rational interests. In a recently published interesting analysis that treated Russia through the prism of clinical psychology, Russia’s behaviour is compared to that of a person with a borderline personality disorder, the diagnosis of which is confirmed if a person suffers from five symptoms out of nine. The authors maintain that Russia exhibits, among other things: an unstable identity (Kissinger remarked that Russia could never simply be, it was always either contracting or expanding); a Manichean, black-and-white and friend-or-foe outlook on the world, in which every problem has only one solution and if the process of problem-solving has begun, nothing can be done to stop it; self-destructive and often violent behaviour caused by feelings of emptiness, anger and emotional pain; and the tendency to project the responsibility for one’s own mistakes, deeds or failures onto others.
Russia has justified its steps – which the West grapples to understand – by claiming that it feels insulted and injured after the expansion of NATO and the recognition of Kosovo. It is precisely the issue of Kosovo that has been very difficult for the Russians to swallow, although they have been hardened by the post-Cold War geopolitical rearrangements: while Russia tends to treat international law essentially as the rule of brute force, it defends its universal applicability ardently, using all the persuasive Orwellian rhetorical devices it has at its disposal. In fact, Russia’s hysterical reaction to the solution implemented in Kosovo – one implication of which is the war in Georgia and the recognition of the ‘independence’ of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – shows that Russia is really terrified of the possibility that the regulatory framework for international relations which was agreed upon after the Second World War might be radically redefined: the decreasing importance of the UN and the leading role of NATO and its partners in global politics might render the right of veto Russia has in the UN Security Council worthless. That is why Russia has laboured to establish its own alternative system that does not mimic the western one and counterbalances the West and the network of its partners in global politics. Against this background, such provocations that Russia orchestrated in South Ossetia and Abkhazia might be motivated by its subconscious yearning for the old world order, in which a clear line could be drawn between good and evil and the Eurasian system led by Russia was implacably opposed to the Euro-Atlantic block.
Implications for NATO
What should the West do when confronted with ‘Russia syndrome’? The above-mentioned psychologists advise Russia’s partners to resist all impulses to be lenient and to pursue a policy of reconciliation, as a state suffering from Russia syndrome could never be satisfied. In this context, it is not only the recent tendency prevalent among Russians to interpret and present the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a great national trauma that is perverted in both logical and moral terms, but the same applies to Westerners who bow down before the ‘legitimate complaints’ and ‘security interests’ of Russia. As the Soviet Union was not a normal, but a criminal and totalitarian state, any kind of longing for it cannot be called legitimate in any case. At the minimum, people must stop paying lip service to the Western-Russian ‘strategic partnership’, ‘shared interests’ and in particular ‘shared values’ when guaranteeing the security of Europe and the international community as a whole. It is therefore vital that the Westerners remain true to their values and principles and act accordingly, so that even those who suffer from Russia syndrome would finally get it. Consequently, our key priorities should be the unity of the West and the making of a genuine commitment to our widely-acclaimed shared values.
Still, the reconciliation of the two worldviews – Russia’s understanding of security policy which is essentially based on the balance of power and the West’s yearning for all-encompassing democratic peace – will be very difficult indeed. After all, how can a state adhering to 19th century geopolitical tradition and a unique structure like the European Union – the embodiment of contemporary cross-border cooperation – operate in a common space without getting at each other’s throats? Russia’s war against Georgia should make even the most hardened sceptics and the most optimistic flower children realise that today Russia and the West are pursuing essentially conflicting aims and are employing divergent strategies for their achievement. Such pacifistic methods as falling down on our knees might not do the trick when the growling Russian bear is already charging towards its victim. Playing dead (or dumb) will no longer help either.
The truth of the matter is that the meaning of NATO should be redefined again and the reinforcement of the classical defence dimension of the Alliance should also be taken into serious consideration. After the massive terror attacks targeting the USA on September 11, 2001, the Alliance’s concept of collective defence was broadened so that a direct military attack by one state against another would not constitute the sole event that would activate the collective defence mechanism. Today there is a chance for the renaissance of the ‘old’ NATO which would mean that the focus would shift back to the traditional meaning of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
Russia’s war against Georgia made the Western Allies realise that besides the asymmetric security threats stemming from the Middle East and Africa, the border areas of NATO continue to be affected by deep regional crises and conflicts. The information that has been revealed lately – that NATO actually has no contingency plans for the Baltic states against the threats from the East – might have come as a slight shock to the public. Indeed, the selflessness displayed by the Alliance in this connection is typical of the post-Cold War reconciliation policy pursued in respect to Great Russia, but these days it seems that such a policy is clearly no longer sustainable. It could take something more than mere political deterrent(s) to keep up with the Russians, who are constantly trying to challenge the unity of the West and to disprove the promises made by the EU and NATO. Our membership status without any real Alliance military presence might, however, not be enough to guarantee our safety. At this point, let us forget for a moment the good old mantra that we are the ones, that we are NATO – of course, we are, but on a very different scale!
It is essential for Eastern Europe that NATO should re-shift its focus to collective defence and supplement the use of political deterrent by giving priority to the military infrastructure of its eastern member states. It is in our interests that NATO should reconsider its previous decision not to prepare detailed contingency plans for the defence of the Baltic states due to the lack of a real threat of a military attack. According to military sources, we should engage our own initial defence capability in any case for at least 50-60 days as the launching of effective counter-attacks in the form of military aid on our territory will not be possible earlier. Considering the speed of political decision-making in NATO, the European Union and the USA, the existence of these contingency plans would give a powerful impetus to the development of the Alliance’s readiness and capability to respond in order to be prepared for possible tensions in our region.
Secondly, the voices of those who demand that NATO’s enlargement strategy should be reconsidered to reinforce its traditional role in the geopolitical defence landscape are getting louder as well. The need to spread democracy and to perpetuate the collective security concept in Europe could be seen as the driving force behind the enlargement process in the 1990s. However, Russia’s traditional distrust of the idealistic slogans of NATO and its habit to treat the Alliance as a hostile block should – given the reality we live in today – motivate NATO to take corrective action. That is why an influential NATO enlargement policy strategist, Ronald Asmus, has suggested that in addition to Georgia and Ukraine, the possibility of the accession of, for example, Azerbaijan should also be considered.
A Georgian tragedy
The war in Georgia fuels a pessimistic outlook on the world according to which the makeup of the global system is to a large extent determined by disagreements and conflicts, not by the spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation. The Georgian tragedy – like any other tragedy – exposed the vulnerability and limitations of the West, but let us hope that it will also make Russia realise that it cannot cross its borders without being held accountable for its actions.
The classical Greek notion of tragedy was based on the principle that there need not always be a correlation between human suffering and justice, although the Russians insist that Georgia received a ‘just punishment’ – in fact, Georgia was punished for its self-determination, for its courage to be independent of Russia in its decisions. So the proponents of the tragic vision of politics insist on being sceptical of the omnipotency and rationality of the human mind in international relations. As tragedies remind people of their mortality, the tragic perspective on politics reminds us of the need to know our limits and the extent of our powers. A Georgian tragedy is also a tragedy for Russia and the West because it refreshes the memories of us all, emphasising that the world is full of contradictions, the solving of which sometimes calls for superhuman efforts. This does not mean, however, that tragedies do not develop the analytical skills and creativity of men in their search for new solutions and their fight against injustice. What happened in Georgia is just the beginning of a new act.

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