Two years after Five-Day War

10 august 2010

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: Merely two years have passed since the Five-Day War, but it seems much longer, because the international situation has changed dramatically over these years.

Merely two years have passed since the Five-Day War, but it seems much longer, because the international situation has changed dramatically over these years. The former acute confrontation is gone, yet no convincing political solution has been found so far to the problems that brought about the August 2008 tragedy.

Today, the results of the South Ossetian conflict look different than it seemed two years ago.

Russia has not found itself in international isolation, as many commentators predicted in August 2008. Of course, the global financial crisis played a role in this. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September and subsequent events made people forget about everything else for a long time. Perhaps, the most important political consequence of the crisis was the defeat of John McCain in the presidential elections in the U.S. If he had entered the White House, the world atmosphere and Washington’s interest in Georgia might have been different. But I would dare suggest that if there had been no crisis, relations between Moscow and Western capitals would have evolved according to almost the same scenario.

However much politicians and analysts may say that reliance on military force is old-fashioned, the ability and willingness to use it remains a major factor determining a state’s position on the world stage.

One of the reasons why a war broke out in the post-Soviet space was the U.S. position (not declared officially yet obvious) that Russia’s opinion should be no obstacle to the implementation of Washington’s strategy, which it considers to be right. The inability to counter Russia’s actions, when Moscow went for broke, came as an embarrassing revelation for the White House – and as yet another signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. bid for hegemony failed.

Russia lost the war for the sympathy of world public opinion; it did not win political support on which it had counted; it saw that its formal allies were unreliable; it shouldered problems related to the future of two breakaway territories; it reversed its own morally and legally impeccable position on the non-recognition of Kosovo; and it felt the weakness of its own army. I could go on listing negative effects of the conflict, but there was one strategic gain that outweighed them all – Moscow made other countries take it seriously.

Representatives of the Western establishment, who before the Caucasian War simply brushed aside Russia’s persistent mantras about the need for a new security system in Europe, now admit that Moscow was right in raising that issue. Discussions about a reform of the OSCE have been stepped up, while the issue of inviting Russia to join NATO is now almost commonplace among experts. Some of them even insist that this may help the alliance survive as a viable organization.

Over the two years that have passed since the Five-Day War, the erosion of the world’s leading institutions has only increased. The crisis served as a catalyst for this process. Barack Obama’s policy is a belated but absolutely correct attempt to find answers to the fundamental changes now taking place in the international arena. One cannot be sure, however, that this attempt will be successful or that the reformer president will not be replaced by a man who will want to return to “American leadership” in its former sense. During the years of the Bush presidency, everyone saw what America can be and what impact this may have on the world.

After the Georgian War and the economic crisis, Russia actually got what it wanted. Although President Medvedev’s words in August 2008 that Moscow had claims to a “sphere of privileged interests” aroused a storm of indignation, today this sphere has actually been recognized. No one wants to address problems of the restless and economically troubled post-Soviet space – Europe and the U.S. have problems of their own, while China has never had claims to political influence in the region.

However, after Russia fully restored its status as an international actor and received an opportunity to assume leadership in the region, it has found out that this opportunity will be difficult to use – not for external but domestic reasons. Moscow lacks economic, political, military and intellectual resources to realize the goals it has set to itself in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, the inefficiency of the state machinery is impeding the internal transformation in Russia, although it is obvious to all that the former development models have exhausted themselves.

The Five-Day War put an end to the former agenda, shaped by instincts of the past. Russia took a symbolic revenge for its setbacks and defeats in the last 20 years, which helped reduce psychological tensions. The U.S. and NATO realized that the hunt for geopolitical trophies, remaining after the collapse of the Soviet Union, can no longer be the leitmotif of their entire European and Eurasian strategies. Real threats and challenges dictate entirely different priorities, and the search for a new mission for NATO cannot be infinitely replaced with a mechanical expansion to the East. Even for Georgia, this war made it possible to turn a new page – its leadership can now focus on internal development, since it is already clear that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have gone for good. By the way, the Georgian political system has demonstrated its stability. Mikheil Saakashvili, who has gone through a period of actual isolation, now feels very confident again.

However, the problems that brought about the Caucasian War have not been solved yet. One of them is a general imbalance of the system of international relations, which is only increasing. The fundamental changes in world politics and the crisis of basic institutions – international law, key organizations, and habitual systems of relations – have been the talk among analysts since the end of the 20th century. But now changes have accumulated to such an extent that they have acquired a new quality. To be more precise, they have moved one level down – from general transformation to active changes in the behavior of concrete countries – China and Turkey, Germany and Japan, Brazil and Iran, etc. The number of players with whom one must come to agreement is increasing fast.

This process will gain momentum, making world politics less and less predictable and more and more spontaneous. Generalities about “failed hegemony” or impending “multipolarity” have given way to the reorientation of the key countries of the world and the rethinking of their concrete strategies. The habitual formats no longer meet the current changes; moreover, they cannot even disguise them. The consequences of the Georgian War evoke so little interest among the leading international actors today because each of them has since faced too many other difficulties. The world continues to be in a state of uncontrolled transition, and no one knows its destination.

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