Paradigm Change in Russian Foreign Policy
No. 4 2008 October/December
Alexander Aksenyonok

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Vice President of the Russian International Affairs Council.

The August 2008 developments concerning the Georgian attack on
South Ossetia have gone, due to their significance, far beyond the
framework of a regional conflict. The present shift from a
politically correct showdown between Moscow and Western capitals to
direct confrontation has been ripe for a long time. By recognizing
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has shown to the West that the
partnership model imposed on it, built on hypocrisy and ambiguity,
cannot work any longer.

The August events have given a boost to major shifts in the
alignment of forces and priorities in NATO territory, although
these consequences will not become manifest in full at once.
Georgia’s reckless actions and Russia’s firm response should not be
viewed in isolation but in a global context; and the present
situation should be rethought in light of the developments that
have been taking place in the world over the past two decades.


The war in the Caucasus did not come as any surprise. The
unresolved problem of the “unrecognized states” of South Ossetia
and Abkhazia – as well as several others – was a grave legacy of
the breakup of the Soviet Union and had been an explosive factor
throughout the post-Soviet era. Tensions kept increasing and
decreasing, permanently poisoning interstate relations in the
region. Yet, for over ten years, the parties managed to avoid any
major conflicts.

The situation changed dramatically after Mikheil Saakashvili, a
new-generation politician who had been educated in the West, came
to power in Georgia “with roses in his hands.” Since then, Tbilisi
has focused its foreign policy and military strategies on efforts
to restore the country to the borders of the Soviet Union’s
Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Initially, Georgia’s political and diplomatic moves focused on
two major aspects.

The first one was to try to charm Russia and
get it to give a tacit green light for the peaceful integration of
Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia.

The second one was to tie the hands of the
West, primarily the United States, by Georgian manifestations of
its boundless devotion to democratic ideals and its readiness to
join Euro-Atlantic structures at any cost – regardless of the
legitimate concerns of Georgia’s neighbors, including the people of
South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

When it became obvious that these two aspects were incompatible
in real politics, Saakashvili’s policy stopped being ambiguous, the
stakes started increasing, and Saakashvili’s anti-Russian game grew
in scope, going beyond the Caucasus. Tbilisi launched an
unprecedented campaign to demonize Russia. The breach of
centuries-old brotherly ties between the Russian and Georgian
people was accompanied by the falsification of historical facts in
a chauvinistic manner.

The presence of Russian peacekeeping forces – which were
internationally recognized, including by Georgia, under 1992
agreements – in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia was the main obstacle to the implementation of the Georgian
leader’s fixed idea. His plans to replace the current legitimate
mechanism for settlement in South Ossetia with a new international
format by peaceful means failed, as South Ossetia strongly opposed

In those circumstances, the Georgian leadership made a decision
to carry out a military operation which, in case of military
intervention by Moscow, would have made the Russian peacekeepers a
party to the conflict. Georgia increasingly violated existing
agreements and the security regime in the peacekeepers’ control
zone and hastily built up its military capabilities and its armed
presence in South Ossetian enclaves. Russian troops increasingly
became targets of gross provocations.

The limited framework of the peacekeeping mandate, which did not
allow the use of military force, made Georgia confident of its
impunity. As distinct from the tough peacekeeping operation in
Bosnia and Herzegovina where, according to the Dayton Accords,
NATO’s multinational forces had the right to open fire only in
special cases provided for by the rules of engagement, the role of
Russian troops in South Ossetia was limited mainly to the
separation of forces, and the maintenance of the security regime
and the ceasefire. According to the 1992 agreements, the Joint
Control Commission – the then quadripartite mechanism for the
political settlement of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict – was
not backed up with sufficient military might.

Primary importance in NATO-led peace enforcement operations in
the Balkans in the 1990s under a United Nations mandate was
attached to the presence of a robust and capable military component
in a peacemaking force.

In the early 1990s, Russia did not have the necessary
peacemaking experience in the new post-confrontation conditions,
which was acquired later in the Balkans. But who could imagine then
– even in the worst-case scenario – that a conflict between
Georgians and Ossetians on the territory of a former Soviet
republic would erupt into a war between Georgia and Russia?
Anyways, that “drawback” in the peacemaking mandate let Georgia
hope for a blitzkrieg and for changing the situation de facto,
which would see Russian military intervention lose politically.

Now that Saakashvili’s reckless military action has failed and
brought about a humanitarian catastrophe, it is not really
important whether it was approved by Washington or whether Tbilisi
misinterpreted the signals it had received from the U.S. The rapid
turn of events which preceded the invasion of Tskhinvali leaves no
doubt that the coordination of political and diplomatic steps to
remove Russia’s military presence in the region did take place and
still continues in the post-war stage.

The establishment of the true motives that caused Tbilisi to
take such a step right now would not change much. Perhaps it was
related to the upcoming elections in the United States and possible
corrections to George W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy, or to plans
to push through Georgia joining NATO’s Membership Action Plan in
this way, or to assumptions that Russia would not intervene because
of the huge risks involved.

Another thing is of more importance. The present efforts to
eliminate the consequences of the Georgian aggression against the
small Ossetian people should not overshadow the search for
responses to the global challenges of our time. After all,
Saakashvili, for all his impulsiveness, would have never dared to
take military action if the world, gripped by chronic and newly
acquired diseases, was not going through a period of uncertainty
and the loss of benchmarks. Reports of victory, just as propaganda
salvos and demonstrations of righteous anger over attempts by an
“aggressive Russia” to give short shrift to “tiny Georgia,” only
enhance the feeling of the absurdity of what is going on in world
politics today.


The developments over South Ossetia bring up many baffling
questions – and not only in Moscow, as follows from the reaction
around the world. Why have the majority of Western politicians
taken an unbalanced, or bluntly speaking, hostile position toward
Russia? Are there really grounds for presenting its actions in
terms of a confrontation between “good” and “evil,” or between a
“free democratic world” and an “aggressive autocracy?” Does this
local conflict, which was so obviously provoked by Georgia,
threaten U.S. national interests or economic prosperity?

There are no unambiguous answers to these painful questions,
although it is clear that one should look for answers not in
Georgia and not even in Russia. The logic that caused Tbilisi to
take such risks stemmed from the international situation that had
been evolving in the world and around Russia over the past eight to
ten years.

In the historically short period of two decades in the late
20th-early 21st centuries, the world has seen tumultuous changes in
all areas – in the economy, politics, law, information
technologies, and in cultural and humanitarian exchanges.
Globalization processes and the ensuing growth in the
interdependence of countries have speeded up, and room for
multilateral diplomacy and the cross-border movement of people and
capital has increased.

If viewed from the perspective of Russian-Western relationships,
the post-confrontation period reveals zigzagging from hope for a
strategic partnership to the return of Cold War rhetoric.
In the 1990s, newly independent Russia readily embarked on the path
of domestic reforms and integration into the global economy, and
established partner relations with NATO and the European Union,
imposing on itself considerable self-limitations on conventional
armaments and the strength of its Armed Forces. It is within recent
memory that Russia cooperated with NATO within the framework of
multinational forces to restore peace in the Balkans. NATO
expansion to countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the
Baltics took place relatively peacefully, although Moscow expressed
its principled objection to such a Western policy where there was
no military threat from the East. At the same time, Russia and NATO
built effective mechanisms for their interaction with a view to
establishing a partnership on a strategic scale.

Already in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency,
Moscow did not hesitate to lend its shoulder to the United States
after that country was attacked by international terrorists. Russia
offered support then not only in word, but in deed – even
sacrificing some of its national security interests in the Central
Asian region.

It was a time when both Russia and the West had illusory hopes
for a conflict-free settlement of their differences on the basis of
common interests in countering new global development challenges.
Russia’s political establishment displayed readiness for
far-reaching compromises, given that the West reciprocated and
showed its desire to duly assess the difficulties of the democratic
transformations in Russia.

However, conservative NATO representatives in the West took that
as the consent of a weakened Russia to play the role of a “junior
partner” and as a “golden chance” to Westernizing global
development under the auspices of international security and
cooperation structures, which were under a strong U.S. influence.
In this sense, a program for extensive reforms, which was called
the “Washington Consensus” in the 1980s, can be viewed as a claim
for Americocentrism not only in the economy and finance, but also
in making global political decisions and in their monopoly
information support.

The transition from an idyllic phase in the post-confrontation
period to a politically correct showdown in Russian-Western
relations did not take place overnight. The two parties maintained
the semblance of business cooperation for quite some time, while
differences latently piled up between them in approaches to solving
the major problems of world development. George W. Bush repeatedly
assured Moscow that the U.S. did not consider Russia an enemy,
while Moscow confidently said it was impossible to return to
confrontation and that history would not repeat itself.
Meanwhile, the slide – if not toward confrontation then toward a
mutual chilling in relations and suspicions – picked up speed.
During the Cold War years, the fear of mutual nuclear destruction
caused the parties to adopt tacit rules of the game and draw “red
lines.” In the civilized 21st century, the world grew increasingly
diverse and less governable.

Washington’s unilateral actions and its practice of imposing its
own solutions on its allies as “collective will” made the world
face a “humanitarian intervention” in the former Yugoslavia, and
this led to the bombings of this and other sovereign states: in
particular, Iraq was bombed by Israel, and Sudan by the U.S.

The destruction of the foundations of the post-war international
architecture grew faster after neo-conservatives came to power in
Washington in 2001, although one must admit that they simply
developed the trends set by their predecessors and “ideological
opponents” in the Bill Clinton administration.

The United States assumed the right to classify some states as
“rogue nations” (the term was coined back in the 1990s) and others
as “torches of democracy” (a trademark of the 2000s). The U.S.
invasion of Iraq, which shocked even its European allies, was the
first time in the post-confrontation period when the government of
a sovereign state was ousted by force – and, as it turned out
later, without any grounds whatsoever. Clumsy attempts followed to
rebuild the Greater Middle East according to Western democratic
standards, which produced the opposite result and led to the
triumph of the radical Islamic movement Hamas (it convincingly won
elections in Palestine in the winter of 2006) and to a legitimate
merger of the Hezbollah party – a kindred spirit to Hamas – with
Lebanon’s state structure, which made it the most influential
political force in the country. This and other factors, together
with increased terrorist activity by Al-Qaeda, exacerbated the
situation in the Middle East and predoomed to failure belated
mediation efforts by the outgoing Bush administration in the
Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

The situation on the European continent did not develop
favorably either. The George W. Bush administration started its
unilateral actions on the international arena by withdrawing from
the ABM Treaty, thus delivering a blow to global strategic
stability. The policy continued to undermine the established
balance in this sector. By the end of the Bush presidency, the
United States – under the pretext of an Iranian threat – went ahead
with its plans to deploy a position area in Poland and the Czech
Republic for its national missile defense system, ignoring Russia’s
well-founded concerns.
Washington imposed on the Europeans a distorted perception of
Russia and its intentions. The atmosphere of pan-European
cooperation was under the pressure of the Kosovo problem, whose
solution was never found within the framework of international law.
Under the pretext of the “uniqueness” of the Kosovo case,
Washington pushed through Kosovo’s separation from Serbia despite
the latter’s sovereign will, thus completing the process of the
breakup of Yugoslavia. Interestingly, the Americans left it for
Europe to handle Kosovo’s future, although Europe did not want the
emergence of a new country in the region.

New NATO and the European Union members, such as Poland and the
Baltic States, contributed a lot to the irritation in
Russian-Western relations, as they – out of petty egoism – did
their best to impede the establishment of a business partnership
between Moscow and Euro-Atlantic structures. This policy by the
Russophobe leaders of those states enjoyed U.S. support – just as
in the case with Georgia – which could not but tell on the
Russian-U.S. dialogue.

NATO’s expansion to former Soviet republics, colored by an
ideological tint, marked the beginning of a new phase that can be
described as a rivalry for influence in post-Soviet territory using
nonconfrontational means. The “democratic revolutions” in Georgia
and Ukraine, instilled in the Western public consciousness as
opposed to “autocratic tendencies” in Russia, moved this rivalry
into the field of heated international debates about social
development models, election technologies, and the role of
non-governmental organizations in elections.

An analysis of elections in Slovakia, Serbia and especially
Ukraine gave Moscow weighty grounds for concluding that the United
States and its NATO allies used the democracy rhetoric as a cover.
Thus, the mechanisms created and financed by the West for replacing
unwanted regimes formally acquired a political legitimacy. Many
experts even began to speak of the danger of creating a cordon
sanitaire along Russia’s western and southern borders, including
neighboring states unfriendly to Russia ranging from Estonia to

Then the massive attack on Russia moved into the economic
sector. When Moscow – in line with market economy principles –
raised energy prices for former Soviet republics, it expected
understanding from the West. Instead, it once again became the
target of accusations of “neo-imperial ambitions” and of using oil
and gas as an instrument to exert pressure on its neighbors.
Simultaneously, the West raised the issue of Europe’s energy
security in an unprecedentedly dramatic way, unparalleled even with
the Cold War era.

Feeling ever increasing outside pressure, often exerted under
false pretexts, Russia did not seek at all to preserve, at any
cost, the world order established after World War II. Russia, as
well as other countries, was worried by how this world order was
being dismantled. Whereas the foundations of the outdated system
had been built collectively, its destruction was being conducted
unilaterally, on the spur of the moment. Partner relations and
business cooperation were replaced with a semblance of partnership,
with double standards in politics, and with moralizing and

The fundamental principles of international law, embodied in the
UN Charter and multilateral treaties, were eroding, among them
national sovereignty, territorial integrity, equal security, and
non-interference in internal affairs.

In these circumstances, the influence of international
organizations, primarily the United Nations, was steadily
declining, giving rise to talk about the UN’s inefficiency and to
doubts as to whether the UN could be reformed at all. Indeed, in
cases when the positions of the UN Security Council’s permanent
members diverged, this organization proved increasingly often
unable to make effective decisions. When Georgia attacked South
Ossetia, it remained paralyzed, as well.

Joint efforts to build a new, well-ordered international
architecture were replaced with informal discussions of all kinds
of pseudo-problems, like the idea, voiced by U.S. Republican
presidential hopeful Senator John McCain, to establish a “League of
Democracies” united by common values. Considering the established
international background, there was no doubt about the anti-Russian
charge of this proposal.


Moscow’s reaction to Tbilisi’s reckless military operation
should not be assessed using the old yardstick, which is unfit for
evaluating the emerging chaotic world order. In a situation where
developments in the world were marked by a game without any rules
and where norms of international law were replaced with political
expediency, Georgia consciously played the role of a warmonger,
expecting to go unpunished, while Russia, as the defending party,
had no other choice.

There is an impression that the leading political actors in the
West have not understood – or do not want to understand – that the
snowballing of irritants in recent years has acquired a new
quality. For Russia, just as for any other country, this new
quality is expressed in terms of national security, economic
interests, and morality. In the view of Russia’s political elite,
the demonization of Russia at every given opportunity, artificial
attempts to create an enemy image of Russia, and gross violations
of the rules of free competition in world markets – all these
developments are intended to prevent Russia’s rebirth as a center
of power in the rapidly changing world.

The attempts to turn Russia from a partner of the West into an
“aggressor” and “violator of the norms of international law” look
particularly absurd as Moscow has repeatedly warned, patiently and
honestly: no one can ignore Russia’s natural state interests; there
are lines that cannot be crossed.

None of these warnings have been taken seriously; and in general
Moscow’s arguments have long been running across a wall of more or
less polite indifference. One has the impression in this regard
that Russia is ready to give up trying to explain its actions and,
instead, to act primarily from its own vision of the situation,
rather than from possible foreign reactions.

The world needs to take a break, as Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov proposed recently. It needs to calmly rethink
everything and prepare a serious dialogue that would help to
collectively work out an international architecture for security
and cooperation to meet the new global realities. However,
decisions on a new world order may have to be made “on the move” as
the course of events has picked up speed. The events in Georgia
have shown that the choice will first have to be made quickly and,
second, not between good and bad options, but between bad and very
bad ones.
One is inspired by statements made nowadays that no one wants a new
Cold War. On the other hand, a Cold War is now impossible as the
world has changed too much since the times of the ideological
confrontation of the 1940s-1980s. The present global
interdependence makes any conflict take quite new, hitherto unknown
shapes; so it is simply impossible to predict how events will
develop if one simulates them on the basis of the experience of the
“first” Cold War.

It is important to avoid an escalation of tensions to the point
of no return, to overcome the temptation of a “battle of prestige,”
which has a destructive logic, and to negotiate specific formats
for continuing a pragmatic, ideologically unmotivated dialogue.
Actually, this is what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for
in his speech in Berlin in June 2008, when he proposed starting up
discussions about a new Euro-Atlantic security system. Now this
idea has acquired even more importance. Unfortunately, countries
have not displayed much readiness for such a dialogue yet.