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Recently, relations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led by its most powerful member, the United States of America, and the Russian Federation have begun to resemble the hottest years of the Cold War, with talk of opposing missile shields and accusations of spying on both sides. And despite President Obama’s recent attempts to “reset” the United States’ diplomatic relationship with Russia, tensions between NATO and Russia are still on the rise.
A major issue in NATO-Russia relations has been the conflict between NATO and Russia over control in several parts of the post-Soviet sphere, especially the Caucasian state of Georgia. Indeed, many security analysts have concurred that former President Bush’s declaration of support for Georgia’s NATO membership bid was a major factor in last August’s war between Georgia and Russia. Since then, Georgia, which still hopes to join the alliance, has been a sticking point in NATO-Russia relations. NATO’s recent decision to go ahead with planned military exercises in Georgia this week will do nothing to help matters. The decision to hold the exercises in Georgia and to disregard the diplomatic implications of such an action is foolish, and it can lead to nothing but more unnecessary conflict.
The military exercises, which have involved troops from 15 countries, are connected to NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Russia, as a member of the Partnership for Peace, was invited to join in the exercises, but could hardly be expected to participate in military maneuvers in a country it is effectively still at war with. Although these exercises are focused on peacekeeping skills, they have gained importance, particularly for Russia, far above their stated aims. Russia sees the maneuvers, although they had been planned before the Georgia conflict erupted, as a NATO threat against Russia and, in particular, its military presence in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The timing and the location of the exercises, which are being held not even a year after the conflict on Georgian territory, justifies, to some extent, Russia’s suspicion that these exercises are a show of NATO solidarity with Georgia against Russia. Since Russia is the only power Georgia has gone to war with recently, Moscow might fairly assume that NATO exercises taking place on Georgian soil are designed to train soldiers for another possible conflict with Russia. If NATO does not intend for Russia to draw this conclusion, then it would be prudent for NATO to cease the exercises and conduct them in a politically less dangerous location.
There is also, perhaps, some truth to the statement by Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian envoy to NATO, that NATO would be wiser to hold the exercises “in some psychiatric hospital” than in Georgia, given the current state of affairs. Protests calling for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign have rocked Tbilisi, for the past month, and the ranks of the protestors have grown to encompass members of the government. One of these, a former parliamentary speaker, even declared to a crowd of protestors that Georgia “is not a democratic country.”
While the government has allowed the protests to continue without interference, the memory of the government’s violent suppression of protests in 2007 remains a mark on Saakashvili’s record as a democratic leader. And early last week, a tank division mutinied against the government. Whether or not Russia was behind the plot—as Saakashvili has implied—it is a clear indicator that Georgia does not have full control over its military forces.
Saakashvili has called the exercises a “symbolic event,” and it appears clear that, at least in Saakashvili’s mind, the purpose of these maneuvers is to demonstrate NATO’s solidarity with Georgia and its willingness to defend Georgia against Russia, if need be. Given the suggestions that the August war was at least partly the fault of Saakashvili’s recklessness, however, it seems likely that any suggestion that NATO will come to his aid will only make him bolder, particularly in the face of domestic calls for the return of the breakaway provinces.
Furthermore, there is no reason to expect that NATO will come to Georgia’s aid with any more enthusiasm than it did in August. NATO condemned Russia’s recognition of the breakaway regions and last September formed a basis for cooperation with the NATO-Georgia Commission. However, supporting Georgia, particularly in a struggle with Russia for territories the rest of the world considers to be relatively minor, would not only be a political disaster for NATO members, but might risk direct war between NATO and Russia. With NATO decreasing its support for the ongoing war in Afghanistan, it is hardly realistic to expect that the alliance will support a small country’s politically dubious conflicts.
Calling off the exercises after they have already begun might appear to be a show of weakness by NATO, but such an action would be infinitely better than provoking Russia into another war. Even if the exercises cannot be called off at this point, however, they are indicative of a larger problem in NATO’s approach to relations with Russia. While NATO members should not give in to Russia’s every demand, deliberately angering Russia, as former President Bush did last April by supporting Georgia and Ukraine’s unrealistic bids for NATO membership, is, in many cases, unnecessary and foolish.
Declaring its support for Georgia is a reasonable step for NATO, but demonstrating it in such a provocative manner—especially considering the current state of relations between NATO and Russia—is simply foolish. Since NATO is not prepared to—and should not—throw its full support behind Georgia in another war with Russia, then it should be careful that Russia doesn’t call its bluff.
Ellen C. Bryson ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Cabot House.
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