NATO Expansion Hits Russian Roadblock in Georgia

Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis

17th September 2008

The Russian military blitzkrieg to counter the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s dispatch of his Israeli and US trained and equipped forces to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia on August 7, 2008 took many by surprise. Moscow brazenly took the war straight into the Georgian heartland routing the Georgian forces in South Ossetia and expelling them from the other main Georgian separatist region of Abkhazia.

Russia spurned Western warnings with disdain and recognised the two breakaway regions as independent nations. Even the soft-spoken Russian President Dimitry Medvedev sounded like a resurrected Cold War warrior, when he declared that Moscow is “not afraid of anything”. Moscow was evidently signalling the exhaustion of its capacity to stomach any more insults.

It was an equally unambiguous message to the nations of the Caucasus, Baltic, Central Asia and Eastern Europe that Russia still retained the power and the will to protect its influence in its “backyard”, however close they may be to the United States. In the process, the Kremlin may have also succeeded in laying to rest any doubts that the European Union might have had that no security arrangement without Russia as an equal partner in it would be able to guarantee the security of nations in the region.

Events leading to the crisis suggest that Russia was indeed looking for an opportunity to reassert itself and regain at least some of its lost eminence. The swiftness with which it moved into Georgia is evidence that it may have been preparing for such a contingency months before the war. Russia’s issuance of passports to its citizens in South Ossetia only months before the outbreak of conflict is but another of the events that lend credence to such doubts.

The immediate provocation for ordering the Russian war machine into action against Georgia was of course the thoughtless Georgian military foray into South Ossetia. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the eagerness with which Ukraine and Georgia were pushing their case for membership in NATO, fully supported by the United States. To the Kremlin this was post-Cold War encirclement taking its final form.

It is not that Russia had willingly allowed the erosion of its prestige and power in the region since 1991. It was then fettered by the chaos and economic meltdown that followed the dissolution of Soviet Union. When NATO and the United States moved into Kosovo and humiliated Yugoslavia, a nation considered close to Russia, in 1998-99, Moscow was helpless and it had to swallow its pride. When the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became full members of NATO in 1999, it could do nothing but watch. Later, in 2004, seven more nations, all either former republics of the USSR or falling within the dismantled Warsaw Pact including Poland and the three Baltic countries, joined the Western alliance, it brought the US through NATO to the borders of Russia. If Georgia and Ukraine are inducted, it would mean that NATO would border Russia through half of the 14 nations (Norway, the three Baltic countries and Poland being the others) that share land boundaries with it. Russia would decidedly resist this.

NATO expansion coupled with the increasingly direct US presence in the region has had the Russian leadership worried for some years. The US had also established a military base in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and is negotiating with others for similar facilities. Ignoring Moscow’s vehement protests, the United States has gone ahead with plans to establish Ballistic Missile Defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, ostensibly for intercepting missiles from “rogue” states. But Russia views it as a stratagem to degrade the deterrent value of its strategic forces. The Georgian crisis provided an opportunity for Kremlin to draw the red line and it did so resolutely.

The hawks in Washington have responded to the Russian military intervention by calling for fast tracking the membership of both Georgia and Ukraine in NATO. They have even suggested that if the two nations had been given membership, Russia would not have dared to embark on the military venture because Article 5 of the alliance obligates member nations to “assist” nation attacked by even using “armed force”.

Opinion is divided on whether the Georgian crisis would catapult these two nations into the fast track process to NATO membership. But given the lack of unanimity in the alliance, which works on consensus, this appears to be highly unlikely. Many are of the view that it is the hope of NATO membership and US encouragement that led Mikheil Saakashvili to embark on the ill-fated military adventure in South Ossetia in the first place. George Bush himself trumpeted the US call for NATO membership of the two nations when he undertook a visit to the region in 2008. But the effort was frustrated in April when 10 nations of the 26 in NATO, led by Germany and France, opposed it.

The EU is divided even in its response to the crisis as it cannot ignore Russia either economically or militarily. Europe’s dependence on Russian gas is a crippling 40 per cent. For instance, Germany which has the highest GDP amongst EU nations is heavily dependent on Russia for its gas and oil (40 and 35 per cent, respectively) and its trade with Russia was US$ 42 billion in 2007. Germany’s FDI in Russia has also witnessed a phenomenal rise, led by joint energy ventures; the German share was 34 per cent of the total FDI that Russia had attracted in the year. The impetus to growth in FDI was imparted by positive investor sentiments aided by Russia’s robust economic growth and a sharp rise in domestic demand. Consequently, 2008 has witnessed an equally sharp rise in capital inflows into the country, increasing the stake of investor/lending nations in Russia’s growing economy.

Russia is not what it was in the 1990s or in the early years of this century. It is now a “resurgent” Russia that is jostling for the international space that it had lost. It may not even be a shadow of the military power that it was during the Cold War. Compared to its 17.8 per cent share of world military expenditure in 1990, Russia’s present share of 2.9 per cent appears measly. Its conventional force strength has been depleted due to funding problems and closure of many of its R&D defence establishments, casting doubts about its capacity for military intervention. A few flights by TU-95s or TU-142 Bears designed over 50-odd years ago do not constitute a challenge to the United States. Russian conventional strength may also not be a match for NATO forces. But the Georgian crisis gave Russia the opportunity to establish that even its depleted forces are lethal enough to safeguard its “backyard”, with the ultimate guarantor being its formidable strategic forces which can destroy the United States many times over.

Riding comfortably on an average economic growth of over 7.2 per cent in the last five years, and the buoyancy imparted by high oil prices, the coming decade is likely to witness a resurrection of the Russian defence industry. Progress in this regard has already begun with increased outlays for defence R&D and an average growth of more than 19.8 per cent in the defence budget in the last two years (2006-08). Moscow has also recently announced an outlay of US$ 200 billion for the modernisation of its forces and has unveiled plans to induct new-generation nuclear missiles.

Further, the leased deep water port of Sevastopol in the Crimea (Ukraine), a city which has more than 70 per cent ethnic Russians, is home to Russia’s 225 year old Black Sea Fleet. And this port is of critical importance to Russia for its presence in the region and in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is no other deep sea port in the Black Sea that can accommodate large Russian vessels. Russia has leased rights to use the port till 2017. Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the termination of the lease agreement could jeopardize the deployability of its expanding naval fleet. It is also aware that if it loses this base, it could even foresee the US 6th Fleet using this facility. Moscow would not countenance such an eventuality and it can be expected, as it has made clear, to use all the powers in its means to prevent such a development. This could spell instability in Ukraine.

The leadership in Russia is also not what it was in the 1990s. The dithering Yeltsin has been replaced by a more confident and hawkish Putin who even as Prime Minister reigns supreme in Moscow. The Russian leadership would not shy away from using force as the events in Georgia have evidenced. Given widespread domestic support for its military response and the nationalistic sentiments the Georgian crisis has engendered in Russia, it would be difficult for the United States to push its agenda of further NATO expansion without the fear of Russian retaliation. Though the Russian threat that Poland could face nuclear strike for its decision to host US missile defence systems could be plain bluster, it is nevertheless a signal that the Kremlin would not tolerate further threats to its security.

The Georgian military foray into South Ossetia may have thus further complicated Georgia’s chances of getting membership in NATO. That the hope of membership in the Western alliance was also responsible for emboldening Georgia to resort to force has not been lost on the EU. Even before Georgia’s military foray, the German Chancellor had opposed Georgian membership saying “Countries that are enmeshed in regional and internal conflicts cannot become NATO members.” France also echoed similar sentiments at the Summit, stating that NATO enlargement would further provoke Russia.

Given the economic stakes the EU has in Russia, a confident and hawkish leadership in a resurgent Russia, and the dangers of further tension and instability in the region that the issue of NATO expansion has spawned, no consensus is likely to emerge on the pending applications of Georgia and Ukraine. If it did not in April 2008 when the NATO summit was held prior to the Georgian crisis, there is virtually no chance for it to fructify now. Europe indeed realises that it would find it very difficult to live with an insecure and resurging Russia.