October 14, 2008 — Russian actions in the recent Russia-Georgia conflict were not about re-establishing Russian empire or reigniting the Cold War, according to Allen Lynch, a University of Virginia professor of politics and an expert on Russian foreign relations.
Rather, he said, they were a move by a deflated superpower, well aware of its current weaknesses, to define a sphere of influence barely beyond its borders as a push-back to 17 years of aggressive NATO expansion since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia cannot be viewed in isolation as purely a Russia-Georgia issue, said Lynch, a former director of U.Va.'s Center for Russian and East European Studies. It must be seen in the broader context of the past 17 years of aggressive expansion of NATO, which has grown to include most of the former Eastern Bloc countries and even the three Baltic states that were formerly part of the U.S.S.R. -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The U.S. push for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO has signaled to Russia that NATO will continue to expand, and "told the Russians that there really were no limits to the breadth of American ambitions to basically isolate Russia in some kind of geopolitical ghetto of world politics," Lynch said.
To leave no doubt that NATO expansion amounts to U.S. military action at Russia's doorstep, Lynch noted that within 24 hours after the admission of Estonia into NATO in 2004, the U.S. publicly flew three F-16 fighter jets into Estonia, just miles from the Russian border.
Russia is not alone in taking offense at such action so close to its borders, Lynch said. Ever since the Monroe Doctrine was put forth in 1823, the United States has viewed similar interference in its sphere of influence as hostile action that may require military response, as happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Russians were asserting their own "Monrovskaya Doctrina," Lynch said, as their military made a big show on Russian TV of moving through Georgia destroying all the American military equipment they could find, to send the message that they don't tolerate such a military presence in their sphere of influence just across their border.
"From a global point of view, it's pathetic that the Russians are constrained to define their sphere of influence on the inner Georgian border" as it's less than 100 miles beyond its borders, Lynch said. "But this is their push-back to NATO expansion."
Vladimir Putin is the most powerful leader in Russia, Lynch said. Putin has a black belt in judo, and the Russian response had the hallmarks of a good judo move, he said. Georgia's assault on South Ossetia and Abkhazia provided Russia a propitious moment, which they were ready for and exploited "relatively speaking, in a very disciplined and smart way — so they couldn't be charged with outright aggression, or occupation of a sovereign state, and so they didn't overextend themselves."
Vice President Dick Cheney has been a leading advocate of aggressive U.S. encroachment on Russia's traditional sphere of influence, including efforts to help establish American oil interests in the many oil-rich central Asian states along Russia's southern border that were formerly part of the U.S.S.R. According to news reports, Lynch explained, a few years ago Cheney rebuffed a suggestion from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S. tone down such efforts in acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Russian interests in the region. Cheney justified his strategy by arguing that unrelenting U.S. pressure on Russia had been the key to winning the Cold War.
Facing the pressure of unrelenting NATO expansion, Lynch said, Russians have concluded that there is really no basis of shared values upon which to partner with the U.S. to build a 21st century global security community.
Yuri Urbanovich, a U.Va. politics lecturer and a native of Georgia who teaches a course on the politics of the Caucasus region, said one thing will let everyone sleep better: "The world needs a new global security system in which Russia has its share," he said.
But in recent years Russia and the U.S. have failed to create a new global security regime. Absent that, Lynch said, Russia has decided to follow the U.S. example (in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere) and intervene unilaterally with direct military force when national interests or regional security are threatened.
"Russia is trying to re-establish itself as the center of its own security, political and economic universe, rather than, as was true during the Cold War, trying to leverage a global transformation," Lynch said. "There is no ideological impetus to Russia's conflict with the West. It is regionally focused, not globally focused."
Russia's regional focus extends beyond its borders, but not far beyond -- essentially the territory of the former U.S.S.R., which Russians view as their true security frontier, comparable to the Caribbean for the U.S., Lynch said.
The U.S. push for Georgia to join NATO encouraged Georgians, led by pro-American President Mikheil Saakashvili, to believe that they could substitute Washington for a working relationship with Moscow.
The Georgians should not imagine that to be true, Lynch said. "In the end, if push comes to shove, the Americans are not going to sacrifice their much broader, more complex and fraught relationship with Moscow, including nuclear arms control, for the geopolitical ambitions of Georgians. But the Georgians did not want to hear that. They wanted, in a way, to escape their geography."
Actions that push Georgia and other former Soviet territories to forsake a working relationship with Moscow are ultimately detrimental to all parties, Lynch said.