Russia’s strategy to revise the post-Soviet order in what it calls its “near abroad” will be pursued with even more perseverance following its victory over Georgia. Europe should have no illusions about this and should begin to prepare itself. But as the EU ponders what to do, cold realism, not hysterical overreaction, is in order.
Unfortunately, equating the current situation in the Caucasus with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 does not attest to this kind of realism. Neither the West nor NATO constitutes the decisive strategic threat facing Russia, which comes from the Islamic South and the Far East, in particular the emerging superpower, China. Moreover, Russia’s strength is in no way comparable to that of the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, demographically, Russia is undergoing a dramatic decline. Apart from commodity exports, it has little to offer to the global economy.
Notwithstanding booming oil and gas revenues, its infrastructure remains underdeveloped, and successful economic modernization is a long way off. Likewise, its political and legal system is authoritarian, and its numerous minority problems remain unsolved. As a result, Russia’s current challenging of the territorial integrity of Georgia might prove to be a grave error in the not-so-distant future.
Given this structural weakness, the idea of a new Cold War is misleading. The Cold War was an endurance race between two similarly strong rivals, the weaker of which eventually had to give up. Russia does not have the capacity to wage another struggle of that type.
Nevertheless, as a restored great power, the new Russia will for the time being attempt to ride in the slipstream of other great powers for as long as doing so coincides with its possibilities and interests; it will concentrate on its own sphere of influence and on its role as a global energy power; and it will otherwise make use of its opportunities on a global scale to limit the US’ power. But it will not be able to seriously challenge the US — or looking toward the future, China — in ways that the Soviet Union once did.
It is now clear that in the future, Russia will once again pursue its vital interests with military force — particularly in its “near abroad.” But Europe must never accept a renewal of Russian great power politics, which operates according to the idea that might makes right.
Indeed, it is here that Russia’s renewed confrontation with the West begins, because the new Europe is based on the principle of the inviolability of boundaries, peaceful conflict resolution and the rule of law, so to forgo this principle for the benefit of imperial zones of influence would amount to self-abandonment. Further eastward expansion of NATO, however, will be possible only against fierce Russian resistance. Nor will this kind of policy in any way create more security, because it entails making promises that won’t be kept in an emergency — as we now see in Georgia.
For too long, the West has ignored Russia’s recovery of strength and was not prepared to accept the consequences. But not only Russia has changed; so has the entire world. America’s neo-conservatives have wasted a large part of their country’s power and moral authority in an unnecessary war in Iraq, willfully weakening the only global Western power.