Towards a New Cold War? Understanding the Russian-Georgian Conflict

The announcement of a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia this afternoon has taken the Georgian crisis off the front burner, at least for the time being.  But the underlying cause of the conflict—the status of Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia—remains largely unresolved. 

The status of South Ossetia highlights sharper divisions emerging in the world today.  The days of closer relations between the United States and Russia appear to be dwindling.  Western leaders seem less happy with Putin and Medvedev—a far cry from the days that President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and claimed to have gotten a sense of his soul.  The BBC coverage of Russia-US relations has moved from headlines like “Bush and Putin: Best of Friends” in 2001 to “Bush condemns ‘bullying’ Russia” today.

Why the change?  How did Russia move from being a friend (if not yet an ally) to a bully?  There are several reasons for the shift.

First, US policy towards Russia has become more bellicose in recent years.  While campaigning for the presidency, Republican candidate John McCain has taken numerous opportunities to criticize Russia.  Even before the Georgian crisis, he was calling for Russia’s expulsion from the G8 and the creation of a “League of Democracies” to counter Russia’s global influence.  This shift is largely confined to the US and Britain, as other European democracies have been hesitant to adopt a similar stance.

Russia’s perception of American policies may be more important than the policies themselves.  The expansion of NATO into eastern Europe—potentially to include Ukraine and Georgia—leave Russia feeling surrounded by the very organization which had been developed to counter their influence.  The negotiation of agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to deploy the US missile defense shield, which Russia believes is targeted against it rather than against rogue states like Iran and North Korea, further divides Russia and the US. 

Second, Russia’s growing economic prowess has increased its ability to act on the world stage.  The European Union has grown increasingly dependent on Russian oil and natural gas exports, which in turn generate more than $1 billion per day for the Russian government.  The announcement that the Russian government would take control of up to half of the country’s grain exports further expands the foreign policy tools available to the Russian government.  If, for example, Europe moved to isolate Russia, Russia could retaliate by cutting natural gas shipments to the EU…a continuation of war by other [political] means, to paraphrase Clausewitz.

We may not be witnessing the start of a new cold war yet…but it’s not inconceivable that we may be heading that direction.

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