The media coverage of Russia’s recent military intervention in Georgia has been intense. Moscow justified its early August attack on its Caucasian neighbour as a “peace enforcement” operation and an attempt to protect Russian citizens living in the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. What is striking in many commentaries and analyses is the fact that they repeat the same odd assertion that, firstly, the US and the EU showed a weak resolve in responding to the Russian aggression, and, secondly, that Russia scored a political victory on the ruins of Georgian towns and villages.
Instead of taking this simplistic approach, I would propose a more nuanced assessment of the outcome of that violent crisis to show that the opposite is more likely to be true. The coverage of the Georgian war, both in mainstream media and among some political analysts, has been marred by a clear bias and singular narrowmindedness. While the Western press was almost united in its condemnation of Russia, what was conspicuously missing for a long time was a decent analysis of the Georgian leadership’s actions immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities on 7 August 2008.
Of course, it is very hard – and unnecessary – to justify Russia’s aggression, but it would be of great service to today’s public, as well as future historians, if President Saakashvili’s reckless belief in the international community’s carte blanche, which drew the easily provoked Russian Army into a military confrontation, was properly registered and thoroughly analysed.
Furthermore, reading many of the commentaries regarding the Western response, one might easily be confused and think that Georgia was already a NATO member. But it is not, and the US and its European allies had no legal obligation to come to its rescue by attacking Russia and risking a full-scale war with all its consequences. However, short of such an attack the West responded unambiguously by signalling that the “business as usual” approach was no longer an option.
Renewed talk of speeding up efforts to diversify Western energy supplies will be keenly registered in Moscow, especially since oil prices have been falling. It may not have been useful for most of the Soviet era, yet today the West can reasonably hope that economic pressure will suffice to dissuade Russia from persistent violation of international norms.
Finally, many commentators failed to acknowledge the EU’s efforts to mediate between the two sides of the conflict as a sign of progress in its shaky common foreign and security policy. Compared to the war in Lebanon in 2006 when the EU looked to the UN to broker a ceasefire – although that conflict also took place in their neighbourhood – the EU’s reaction was swift this time around. The President-in-Office of the European Council (Nicolas Sarkozy) was in Moscow within five days with a six-point plan.
Even more impressively, both sides signed it (although Russia has been heavily criticised for not having fully complied with it). Partly for that reason, President Sarkozy, along with the EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and the EU foreign policy Chief Javier Solana, met with President Medvedev again on 8 September. Of course, the EU is still far from having a truly common foreign policy, and differences among EU states will not vanish overnight, but the EU’s collective reaction to the Russo-Georgian conflict shows that some important gaps are being bridged.