Senator John McCain wants US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to travel to Europe "to establish a common Euro-Atlantic position aimed at ending the war and supporting the independence of Georgia." He declares that Russia will face severe consequences for its actions in the Ossetian/Georgian war, but all of his recommended steps require close coordination and support from US's European allies. It raises the question, therefore, as to whether it will be possible to coordinate a response so that the West appears to speak with one voice.
Certainly, there are areas of agreement. The Western powers agree that Russia has used disproportionate force in its response to Georgia's attempts to retake control of South Ossetia by force. All proclaim the desirability of an immediate cease-fire and the opening of a new round of negotiations and dialogue.
Beyond that, however, I don't see a great deal of agreement. Certainly most Western Europeans--and I suspect privately Eastern Europeans as well--don't believe that the Russo-Georgian conflict presages tanks rolling westward back into the heart of Europe. Nor do I foresee the major continental powers agreeing with the assessment of some US pundits that the armed clash in the Caucasus is an existential threat to the viability of the Euro-Atlantic community. A regrettable conflict, to be sure, perhaps demonstrating why Russia cannot or will not be fully accepted in the European family of nations. But a clash that nonetheless is containable to the Caucasus and should not be more widely internationalized.
Where I predict the dividing line occurring is along the following question. I believe that most European states would support a return to the status quo ante August 6: withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia proper with an acceptance by Moscow of "rump Georgia's" integrity in return for the re-establishment of the de facto "independent" regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and a return to the drawn-out "peace process" of endless meetings and statements that produce no resolution but on the other hand keep things quiet. Forceful Western aid to complete the reintegration of Georgia and hold Russia at bay is not something I believe most European states will sign on to.
On the other hand, there is going to be no acceptance in most American circles of linking a Russian withdrawal and cessation of hostilities to re-opening the debate over the deployment of US theater-missile defense assets in Eastern Europe or toward any sort of voluntary restraint of the part of NATO expanding eastward, of accepting the notion that the Vistula and the Pruth mark the eastern boundaries of the alliance. But it also seems unlikely to expect that Washington will now be able to move forward on advancing the cause of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Here, the reality is that the NATO alliance held together when there was an existential threat hanging above all members--the Red Army. There seems to be less support, though, for states that might face a threat that does not seem to pose a crisis for all of Europe. The reluctance of France and other European states to provide NATO guarantees for Turkey in 2002-03 if Turkey were to be attacked by Iraq should it permit US forces to use Turkey as a base for an attack on Baghdad is a case in point.
Because of the emotions generated by the fighting in the Caucasus, however, it also seems that the emergent "agree to disagree" consensus in the trans-Atlantic relationship for dealing with Russia--where Europe as a whole moved along a path of "constructive engagement" while the US remained more skeptical--is also going to be difficult to maintain. Washington will have to decide if this is a red line for the US, while Paris, Berlin, Madrid and other capitals in Europe may be forced to choose between their own approaches to Russia and good ties with the US.
If Iraq ripped at the fabric of the trans-Atlantic relationship in 2002-03, the Russia question may be the challenge that has to be faced today.
Nikolas Gvosdev, formerly the editor of The National Interest, has joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Stefan Wolff: What to Expect from the Georgia-Russia Crisis
- Tamuna Kekenadze: Report from Tbilisi: Georgia Under Full Attack
- Grigol Ubiria: Russia's Neoimperial Policies Make Georgia and Ukraine Seek NATO Membership