Paradigm Change in Russian Foreign Policy

16 november 2008

Alexander Aksenyonok is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, a veteran diplomat and Arabist who has had assignments to many Arab countries. He served as Ambassador to Algeria and Slovakia, and as Special Envoy to the Balkans. He has a Doctorate in Law.

Resume: 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.

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 them.

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 Georgia.

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 lecturing.

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.

Last updated 16 november 2008, 15:58

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