The fighting in the Caucasus should be a deafening wake-up call to the West. When is a victory not a victory? When it dents your country's image, scares your allies and gets you into an unwinnable war with a hugely stronger opponent.
That is the bleak outlook for Georgia this weekend, after what initially looked like a quick military win against the separatist regime in South Ossetia. Georgia’s attack followed weeks of escalating provocations, including hours of heavy shelling by the Russian-backed breakaway province and signs of large-scale Russian reinforcement.
Thanks to American military aid, Georgia’s 18,000-strong armed forces are the best-trained and equipped fighting force in the Caucasus. But it is one thing for them to defeat the raggle-taggle militia of a tinpot place like South Ossetia (population 70,000). It is another for a country of less than five million people to take on Russia (population 142 million). Now the Kremlin is reacting strongly. Russian warplanes are reportedly striking targets in Georgia. Reinforcements are pouring in. And the Kremlin’s mighty propaganda machine is lumbering into action while a cyber-attack appears to have crippled Georgia’s websites.
For it is the information war, not what happens on the ground, that will determine the victor of this conflict. Russia is portraying Georgia as the aggressor, an intransigent and unpredictable country determined to restore its supremacy over an unwilling province by means of military force and “ethnic cleansing”. Such a country, clearly, would be unfit to receive Western support.
That seems to be working. European leaders have long been dubious about Mikhail Saakashvili, a charismatic US-educated lawyer who stormed to power in the Rose Revolution of 2005. Where the fans of the Georgian President see charm and brains, his critics – such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel – see a dangerously headstrong and erratic leader. A crackdown on the Opposition in November, bullying of the media and instances of abuse of power among senior officials have allowed detractors to draw uncomfortable parallels between Georgia and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
These are misplaced: Georgia is not perfect, but it is not a dictatorship. Its leadership does not peddle a phoney ideology, such as the Kremlin’s mishmash of Soviet nostalgia and tsarist-era chauvinism. It has a thriving civil society, vocal opposition and ardently wants to be in the EU and Nato. Moral grounds alone would be enough reason for supporting it against Russian aggression.
But on top of that is a vital Western interest. The biggest threat Russia poses to Europe is the Kremlin’s monopoly on energy export routes to the West from the former Soviet Union. The one breach in that is the oil and gas pipeline that leads from energy-rich Azerbaijan to Turkey, across Georgia. If Georgia falls, Europe’s hopes of energy independence from Russia fall too.
Yet the West is both divided and distracted. America will be furious if reports turn out to be true that Russian warplanes bombed an airfield where Pentagon military advisers are based. But a lame-duck president is not going to risk World War Three for Georgia. In Europe, Georgia’s allies are mostly small ex-communist states such as Lithuania; heavily outnumbered by those such as Germany that prize their relations with Russia, seemingly, above all else. It seems Russia is ready to hit back hard, in the hope of squashing the West’s pestilential protégé.
In short, it looks more and more as though Georgia has fallen in to its enemies’ trap. The script went like this: first mount unbearable provocations, then wait for a response, and finally reply with overwhelming military force and diplomatic humiliation. The idea that Georgia sought this war is nonsense. Recovering control of South Ossetia from its Russian-backed rulers has been a top priority for the Georgian authorities for years. But nobody thought it would come by military means. The Georgian strategy had been to use soft power, underlining its prosperity and the corruption-
busting successes of Mr Saakashvili’s rule. That contrasted sharply with the isolation and cronyism of South Ossetia, which survives only on smuggling and Russian subsidies.
Now that strategy is in ruins. As things stand, Georgia will be fighting not to regain South Ossetia or even to deter aggression, but to survive. It is hard to see any good outcome. Georgia has failed to win a quick victory: crucially, it failed to block the Roki tunnel under the Caucasus mountains, normally used as a smugglers’ highway, but now the route for Russian heavy weapons that Georgia cannot counter for long. Worse, the authorities in Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway region, may mount an attack, either on its own or with Russian help.
The fighting should be a deafening wake-up call to the West. Our fatal mistake was made at the Nato summit in Bucharest in April, when Georgia’s attempt to get a clear path to membership of the alliance was rebuffed. Mr Saakashvili warned us then that Russia would take advantage of any display of Western weakness or indecision. And it has.
Edward Lucas is the author of The New Cold War (Bloomsbury)