Georgia has become the West’s “inconvenient truth.” Though he never quite says it this way, that is the message of Ronald Asmus’ masterful first version of the history of the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, “A Little War That Shook the World.”

Asmus documents a narrative of Russian behavior towards its southern neighbor that is dissonant with the Obama administration’s “Russia reset” policy.  While Washington asserts that it is pursuing close cooperation with Moscow, but not at the expense of American friends like Georgia, Asmus’ book makes clear the lengths some in Moscow are willing to go to stop the westward tilt of countries in its so-called “privileged sphere of interest.” If this more aggressive stance has costs for Moscow in terms of upsetting closer cooperation with the West, the Kremlin showed in Georgia that it was willing to pay that price. And, in Georgia, the Kremlin also learned that it can defy the internationally-agreed rules of the road in dealing as it wants to with its non-NATO neighbors — without risking much blow-back. 

Asmus’ overriding point is that the war over Georgia did not start in August 2008, as Moscow would prefer observers to believe.  Rather the war unfolded slowly – even meticulously – during the preceding months before the international community’s eyes.  The book documents how Russia – and the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin in particular – for some time had put their sights on Georgian President Mikhail “Misha” Saakashvili, and the Russian leadership was prepared to do what was necessary to stop hopes of Georgia’s integration in the West and especially into NATO. 

(In the interest of disclosure, we, the reviewers, want readers to know some personal background about us and our previous ties to the author. When he worked at the Wall Street Journal in Brussels during the cold war, Kempe knew Asmus, and both of them supported — one as an editorialist and the other as a government official and private advocate — NATO enlargement in the 1990s when the notion was still as unpopular as it later became popular.  Wilson has known the author from the years when they both worked at the State Department, and his conversations with Asmus – involving both counsel and critiques – continued when Damon was a senior director at the National Security Council dealing with Georgia.  We both view his book as a continuation of Asmus’ practice throughout his career of speaking truth to power, as uncomfortable as it might be at the time. Readers can judge this from our review.)

Asmus’ book serves as an important counter, informed by countless interviews with insiders, to the historical narrative that Moscow prefers that an irrational, upstart Georgian leader irresponsibly provoked a Russian invasion by ordering Georgian forces into South Ossetia in August.  And it is true that many in the West have been far too fast to blame the victims.  Russia was a perpetrator, for years blocking efforts to resolve the “frozen conflicts” in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and, in the months leading up to the fighting, taking a series of escalatory measures toward the Georgians and testing the limits of the international community.  Egregious Russian behavior became the norm and the expectation, leading to continuous pleas of concern from Georgia while dulling the West’s sense that a genuine crisis was indeed developing.  President Saakashvili’s performance in the run up to the war has been rightly questioned. But in the end, Russian troops moved into Georgia; Georgian troops never moved into Russia. 

As then-National Security Advisor Steve Hadley said at the time, Putin “also had nursed a long list of grievances in what he saw as the West taking advantage of a weakened Russia to advance its own interests at Russia’s expense – and Putin was looking for an opportunity to settle accounts with the West and restore Russia to its former status as a great power whose interests had to be reckoned with.” Georgia became ground zero for the Russian push-back.

Saakashvili, whatever his shortcomings or judgment lapses, had provided bold leadership for Georgia’s transformation from a nearly failed state into a successful market-oriented democracy.  At the time of the Rose Revolution, much of Europe perceived Georgia as a wild outpost in the Caucuses.  By 2008, many Europeans had accepted the American argument that Georgia was a European state and could eventually earn a position within the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community, even if major differences continued over timing. 

This book is not about blaming Russia and absolving Georgia.  But “Little War” by Asmus – who is the Executive Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels — recounts how bad decisions in Tbilisi put Saakashvili in a spot where he felt almost compelled to fall into a Russian trap. 

Asmus heaps criticism on the West, especially the United States, for failing to anticipate and prevent the outbreak of fighting, and for setting the stage for conflict by its actions regarding Kosovo and at the NATO Summit in Bucharest.  When compared to the resources the West invested in conflict resolution in the Balkans, the West’s strategy in the Caucasus demonstrates either the lower priority of these conflicts or the greater deference to Russia.  As a result of diplomatic maneuvering in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the short-sighted West had been willing to give Russia the role of mediator in conflicts where it has enormous self-interest.  Russia used its diplomatic status to sideline potential diplomatic solutions and perpetuate the conflict. The West watched this happen, but did nothing substantial to protest or alter the dysfunctional situation on the ground.  So, in 2008, the Russians stuck to their Georgia strategy.

In our view, Asmus exaggerates the impact of the West’s push for independence for Kosovo on Russia’s calculations in Georgia.   True, Moscow has attempted to equate Kosovo with Abkhazia and South Ossetia., but there is no real comparison.  Kosovo gained independence after a decade-long process of diplomatic negotiations premised on a United Nations Security Council Resolution mandating future consideration of Kosovo’s final status — after prolonged efforts to gain both Russian and Serbian agreement.  Throughout the process, the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO were heavily involved in managing stability in Kosovo.  Georgia, by contrast, enjoyed years of Security Council Resolutions in which Russia backed its territorial integrity, so the advent of an independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia – in the wake of the fighting in Georgia — was precipitous, unilateral and violent. There was no pretense of negotiation.  As Russia has ensured that missions of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been expelled and the European Union prevented from gaining access to these two regions that the international community deem to be part of Georgia. 

While Asmus fails to spell out convincing alternatives to Western policy on Kosovo, his criticism of the West is justified because the conflict never had been about slivers of territory in the South Caucasus but instead about the greater project of Euro-Atlantic integration. All U.S. administrations since the end of the Cold War had advocated movement in this direction, without always having warm backing from some European allies.

No doubt the war has resulted in great losses for Georgia.  But for the West the setbacks have been also been great, as they have ambitions for expanding Euro-Atlantic integration. It is hard to separate Russian gains regarding Georgia from Moscow’s more assertive efforts elsewhere around its borders, including Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. 

Given this is the first draft of this bit of history, Asmus’ book does have important gaps.  He acknowledges that he lacked the sort of access to Russian decision-makers that he enjoyed with American, European, and Georgian decision-makers.  Furthermore, there is much classified material in the archives in many capitals waiting to be mined to fill in the gaps of this crucially instructive chapter in post-cold war history in Europe.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia violated the core principles of the new European security system established by agreement in the aftermath of the cold war:  no change of borders by force; equal security for all states; the right of every state to choose its own alliances; and no stationing of forces on the territory of any state without its permission.  The most critical challenge we face is to ensure that no similar challenge to these principles occurs again.  Asmus outlines the challenge, if not all the answers, for the Euro-Atlantic community going forward. 

A conclusion about the broader lessons of this war is that the West needs to remember Georgia.  In the absence of an international presence in the conflict zone, the situation remains volatile and tense; the West cannot assume that a conflict cannot reignite.  Georgia and other Russian neighbors also face pressures that are more subtle and less obvious than military action.

Over the longer term, it is clear that Tbilisi will never win back its territory by force.  Its best strategy would be to become a success story – a country with a vibrant free market economy, democratic institutions that work, where individuals can prosper and speak their mind.  The goal is for Georgia to convince Abkhazia and South Ossetia (now much depopulated) that they are better off with autonomy within a united Georgia than as dependencies of Moscow. 

Such a future is difficult to imagine.  But when the U.S. refused to recognize the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union after World War II, the creators of that policy could hardly imagine restored independent Baltic states, much less states that would become members of the NATO and the European Union – as they are today.  In many respects, the ultimate resolution of Abkhazia and South Ossetia may depend on the transformation of Russia. 

Georgians’ aspirations to join the West remain strong, but they understandably have been weakened by the war and by the lack of a coherent Western response. Asmus’ book is useful in reminding us that conflicts don’t just spontaneously start.  Success stories in that part of the world also don’t happen by accident. Georgia must work hard to make itself a sustainable democracy and free market economy.  For its part, Washington and Brussels should remain committed to supporting this process – and to dissuading Russia from its worst instincts.

The most important thing to take away from this book is that, for Russia, the war was never just about Georgia. For the West, it is important to understand that Georgia’s fate and that of Abkhazia and Ossetia also have a meaning that stretches far beyond their borders.

Frederick Kempe heads the Atlantic Council and Damon Wilson is the director of its International Security Program. This review originally ran at The European Institute.

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