Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy
The Flawed Logic That Produced the War Is Alive and Well
When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he was confident that this new assault on the rules-based international order would not be met with serious pushback—and with good reason. For more than a decade, Putin had gotten away with this type of aggressive behavior. From land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine to war crimes in Syria, from interference in other countries’ domestic politics to murder within and outside Russia’s borders, his list of crimes was long, but Putin never paid a substantial political or economic price for his offenses.
Putin learned this lesson after invading Georgia in 2008. Russia’s goal was to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mikheil Saakashvili and install a puppet regime. It was the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that Moscow had invaded another country. Georgian resistance and Western support helped stop Russia from establishing full control over the country, but after a five-day war, Moscow still managed to seize territory from Tbilisi. Despite this, the West did not make Russia pay for violating another country’s sovereignty when the war was over. No economic or political sanctions against Russia followed. Instead, the United States and its allies soon looked for ways to reset their policies with the Kremlin, hoping to improve relations in the service of other goals. Yet accommodation only encouraged Putin to further harass Russia’s neighbors, repress his people, and undermine security and stability in Europe.
For now, the goals in Ukraine are to stop Putin from destroying the country and to restore its territorial integrity. But this war will one day come to an end, and at that point, the West will need to decide how to deal with a postwar Russia. The West cannot forget the lessons of Georgia: it must remember the dangers of accommodating Putin or another Russian dictator. To avoid repeating its past mistakes, the West should first fully support Ukraine to win this war. It should grant NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine. It should seek to liberate Russian-occupied territories in Georgia and Moldova by sustaining political and economic pressure on Russia and by supporting democracy and good governance in those countries. The United States and its allies should also develop an energy and transportation corridor that connects Central Asia with Europe, bypassing Russia. If the West takes these overdue steps, there is a chance for lasting peace, because Putin will finally pay a price for his wars.
At its 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO declared that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually join the alliance. The two countries were denied an official path to membership, however, because France and Germany opposed the move. Putin no doubt sensed the lack of unity and saw a chance to make NATO accession for Georgia and Ukraine impossible.
A few months after the Bucharest summit, Russian armed forces invaded Georgia under the pretext of defending ethnic minorities. Russia targeted Georgia not only to thwart Georgia’s NATO aspirations but also to make an example of it. After the nonviolent Rose Revolution in 2003, which resulted in the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze as Georgia’s president and the end of Soviet-era leadership, Georgia transformed from a failing state into a rapidly developing democracy. It was pursuing Western integration—and had become a “beacon of liberty for this region and the world,” as U.S. President George W. Bush declared during a 2005 visit to the country. Georgia’s progress was also encouraging democrats and reformers far beyond its borders in the region and in former Soviet countries.
Claiming it was defending Kremlin-backed separatists, Russia invaded Georgia’s South Ossetia region. Simultaneously, Russian forces attacked western Georgia from the Abkhazia region and from the Black Sea. Russia launched its assault with overwhelming force, bombing indiscriminately and sending in over 80,000 troops. Georgia, a country with a population of 3.7 million, could not match Russia’s military power. Russian forces pushed Georgian troops out of South Ossetia within a day, but they did not stop there. Russian units quickly moved deeper into Georgia.
In the face of Russian aggression, however, the Georgian government refused to surrender. It was helped by the United States. In addition to the Bush administration’s political and diplomatic efforts, the U.S. military delivered humanitarian aid to Georgia and displayed its readiness to take further decisive steps if the Russian military advance continued. Leaders of eastern Europe also showed their solidarity, traveling to Georgia and standing with a crowd gathered in the main street of Tbilisi on August 12, 2008. U.S. resolve and international pressure were decisive in stopping the Russian invasion. French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a cease-fire agreement with the Kremlin under which Russia was required to pull its troops back to prewar positions. With a cease-fire in place, Russia withdrew its troops, but it never left Georgia completely.
Putin’s regime has made territorial expansion a cornerstone of its propaganda.
The war was over in a matter of days, but it left hundreds dead and thousands more displaced. And because the West’s reaction to the war afterward was so subdued, Putin walked away from it relatively unscathed. He also walked away with two new territories under Russian occupation: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To this day, the Kremlin continues to violate the EU-mediated cease-fire agreement by occupying these two provinces.
Even though Russia failed to obtain any meaningful international recognition of its occupied territories in Georgia, it partly achieved its objectives, at least from the Kremlin’s perspective: it punished Georgia, discouraged other reformers in the region, created serious barriers to NATO enlargement, and challenged the rules-based European order. And it did all this without paying a price. No economic sanctions were imposed on Russia for its military aggression and its occupation of territories in a neighboring country. After a short period, Russia resumed business as usual in all of its international organizations.
The Russian propaganda machine pushed the narrative that its act of aggression was a standalone incident provoked by the Georgian government with its attack on so-called Russian peacekeepers. Regrettably, some in the West believed this version of events and felt comfortable splitting blame for the war between the aggressor and the victim, a narrative that made it easier to welcome Russia back into the fold internationally.
Just months after the war ended, in an attempt to secure Russian support for an operation in Afghanistan and a nuclear deal with Iran, the newly elected administration of U.S. President Barack Obama rewarded the Kremlin with its ill-conceived “reset” policy. For Russia, this new approach meant it would face no political or economic consequences for its aggression. More than that, Putin was able to extract more concessions from the United States. The NATO membership process for Georgia and Ukraine, for instance, was put on hold.
Over time, Putin’s regime has made territorial expansion a cornerstone of its propaganda, and it has met little pushback. Western governments often display an impulse to accommodate Russia’s demands. For years, the West refused to supply Georgia and Ukraine with defensive weapons. Yet every concession to Russia has only made the country more militant.
In 2007, Bush proposed building a new missile shield in Europe to protect against the emerging threat from Iran. The project included placing components of the missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. Russia strongly opposed the project, viewing it as a threat because it would make Europe less penetrable to Russian missiles. In 2009, the Obama administration proposed a revised plan, but Russia opposed it in principle, and, as a result, the United States walked back plans to bolster Europe’s missile defenses. As the war in Ukraine makes painfully clear, Europe needs the ability to shield itself from Russian missiles more than from Iranian ones.
Unpunished, the Kremlin doubled down on espionage, cyberattacks, and disinformation. It targeted liberal societies near its borders and far beyond. To pursue its objectives, the Kremlin used hybrid tactics that included weaponizing energy and trade and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. This interference came in different forms, from efforts to influence elections in places such as France and the United States to the attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016. Russia’s malign influence in its neighborhood produced pro-Russian regimes, such as Viktor Yanukovych’s in Ukraine, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s in Georgia, and Igor Dodon’s in Moldova.
In 2014, after public protests in Ukraine forced Yanukovych from office, Russia invaded the country, annexed Crimea, and occupied the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The invasion marked the end of the U.S. reset policy and triggered efforts aimed at containing Russia, including some sanctions. But the response from the West remained inadequate. The sanctions were too tepid, and the peace process led by France and Germany was too accommodating.
The strength of Western support for Ukraine will shape European security and the stability of the rules-based order for years to come. A Ukrainian victory that includes the restoration of its territorial integrity and the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes and genocide will be a fundamental advance toward lasting peace in Europe. But the West should not stop there.
NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine is the first step. The Western allies should also support democratic developments in the countries in Russia’s backyard. Countries embracing democracy and fighting corruption have been the target of Putin’s hybrid tactics. The West should blunt Russia’s attacks by supporting democratic movements, civil society, the rule of law, and good governance reforms in these countries and taking a tougher line against kleptocrats and autocrats.
The United States and its allies should support the liberation of Russian-occupied territories, including Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moldova’s Transnistria. Russia needs to learn that changing borders by force will not be tolerated and that such attacks come with political and economic consequences. Sending this message will decrease Russia’s appetite for land grabs in future. The West should maintain heavy economic sanctions on Russia until it withdraws its forces from these territories. And Western countries should work with Georgia and Moldova to help them reintegrate these regions.
Europe, for its part, needs to wean itself off Russian energy once and for all. The continent’s dependence on Russian natural gas has made it particularly vulnerable to pressure from Moscow. Russia controls the only pipeline infrastructure that transports natural gas from energy-rich Central Asia to Europe, exposing Central Asian gas producers to the Kremlin’s influence. It is time to build a pipeline that bypasses Russia.
The best way to head off the threat from Russia is to support the democracies around it.
Oil and gas pipelines built in 2005 and 2007 that transport energy from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia practically freed Georgia from depending on Russian energy and Azerbaijan from relying on Russian energy infrastructure. These pipelines have also greatly benefited Turkey and the EU, which receives some of its energy from this route. A trans-Caspian gas pipeline could do even more to foster EU energy independence. It would connect gas-rich Central Asia to the European market without passing through Russia, drastically decreasing the Kremlin’s leverage. The West should invest more political capital in making this project a reality without looking over its shoulder, worried about a possible Russian reaction.
The West should also support the development of transportation infrastructure that connects Europe to the South Caucasus and, from there, goes into Central Asia and beyond. These new transportation routes could create a sustainable trade corridor that does not go through Russia. When a railway connecting the Turkish city of Kars and the Georgian city of Akhalkalaki became operational in 2017, it was a step in the right direction, since it offered an additional railroad route connecting Europe with China. On the other hand, the current Georgian government, fearful of Russia’s reaction, halted the development of a deep-sea port at Anaklia on the Georgian shore of the Black Sea. This was a mistake, for such a port would provide yet another link between Europe and Asia.
Russia is unlikely to become liberal or peaceful anytime soon. Even if Putin leaves or is removed from office, his most likely replacement will come from a circle of former KGB operatives, a group of men who share his values, objectives, and worldview. A change in leadership would not automatically trigger a change in the system or in the nature of the regime. Selling imperialist narratives will likely remain the easiest way to consolidate state power in Russia, at least for some time. It will take time and effort, primarily from the Russians themselves, before the country becomes a freer, more pluralistic society that does not pose a danger to its neighbors and the world. For now, the best way to head off the threat from Russia is to support the democracies around it. That will bring Europe closer to being whole, free, and at peace.