Fortunately, the Russia-Georgia war was short-lived, but its repercussions will be felt for quite a long time. By defeating Georgia and showing that Washington was unable to defend its own ally, Russia humiliated the United States in front of the whole world.
While U.S. officials and the global media criticized Russia for its “unforgivable” conduct in invading South Ossetia and Georgia, most of the world was filled with delight: At last, someone put high-handed Americans in their place. Against the background of anti-U.S. sentiment during President George W. Bush’s two terms in office, this desire to snub the United States is not surprising.
Perhaps Georgia deserves some sympathy. After all, it is a small country that tried to resist its powerful neighbor. But the conflict was less about Georgia and South Ossetia than it was a global battle between East and West.
Russia won the latest round with unexpected ease, but this will surely not be the final battle. After experiencing an embarrassing humiliation, the Bush administration will have difficulty forgiving Russia. Even worse, the U.S. government’s indignation has turned into an anti-Russian consensus among Washington politicians and their electorates. As a result, the anti-Russian views of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain hardly differ from those of Bush. Coming from U.S. politicians, however, the argument that Georgia’s territorial integrity should be preserved doesn’t sound very convincing. After all, it was the United States that set an example after it invaded sovereign Iraq and overthrew the local government. It later separated Kosovo from sovereign Serbia.
The war with Georgia was a sharp turning point in U.S.-Russian relations. From now on, the desire to punish Moscow will become an important component of U.S. foreign policy. The underlying conflict of interests will turn into a protracted confrontation.
Paradoxically, this conflict will most likely turn out to be good news for Russia. What Washington thinks is punishment for Moscow may in fact turn out to be a blessing. For example, the United States believes that blocking Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization is one way to retaliate. But for Russia’s domestic industries — particularly when there is a global economic downturn — entry into WTO would be a death sentence. Therefore, if this sentence will be postponed, the Kremlin can only thank the United States and Georgia.
In addition, Washington and London are threatening to investigate the bank accounts of senior Russian officials that are held abroad. It’s surprising that this wasn’t done earlier. Russians can only benefit if the United States leads a new fight against money laundering, particularly when it involves top officials from the Russian government. Moreover, NATO is threatening to suspend joint military exercises with Russia. That means Russia will save a nice amount of money and fuel. Finally, in light of the increased tension, liberal opposition groups in Moscow will receive more active help from the West. This is also beneficial because new financing will mean the creation of new media outlets, new nongovernmental organizations and new jobs.
When it condemned Russia’s incursion into Georgia, the United States appealed to international public opinion and threatened Moscow with global isolation. But it is the United States that will becoming increasingly isolated in the world. Over the last five years, Washington has met worldwide criticism, including from its allies in Europe. As a result, Moscow’s heightened conflict with the United States makes Russia more appealing for a significant part of the world. The question is only whether the Kremlin is able to take advantage of this new opportunity.
BORIS KAGARLITSKY is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies in Moscow.