October 19, 2009
October 19, 2009
Last year’s conflict between Georgia and Russia revived a number of Cold War-era fears of Russian expansionism. While Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was quick to compare this to the German takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938, it is clear that his claim is invalid. Rather, this increased Russian aggression is more underhanded, and if the West is not careful, Georgia and other small states in the region will be swallowed by Moscow yet again.
While a Georgian annexation could be Russia’s long-term intention, this is very different from Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland in one fell swoop using military and diplomatic means; it did not establish a long-term official presence as Russia has in Georgia. For almost two decades, Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of a UN-led mission to keep the peace.
This has augmented Russian control over these regions, and it could easily expand elsewhere in Georgia. Additionally, most people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia carry Russian passports, a clear indication that Russian protection is welcome. These underhanded methods of soft power are inconsistent with the German example. Russia may have aims similar to those of Germany, but it is going about things in a very different manner.
One similarity between the Czechoslovakian and Georgian cases is resources. The annexation of the Sudetenland gave Germany access to factories essential to building up the German war machine. These additional resources bolstered its war-making abilities and put Germany on a more even playing field with Great Britain and France.
Russia also stands to gain a great deal from Georgia. One of Georgia’s most valuable assets is the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan gas pipeline, which breaks the Russian gas monopoly over Europe. There are plans to build a parallel oil pipeline, which would further circumvent Russian control. Last winter, Russia turned off gas supplies temporarily denying heat to much of Europe; Russian control over the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline would augment its leverage over Europe.
Furthermore, there is the issue of provocation. Czechoslovakia did nothing to provoke its annexation by Germany. Conversely, Georgia has antagonized Russia in various ways. Georgia has made it clear that it aspires to join NATO and the EU. Though Georgia is within its rights to join alliances as it pleases, this has antagonized Russia. Recently, NATO promised Georgia and Ukraine eventual membership. There is no set time line on this, but Russia strongly opposes these states becoming part of Western organizations. NATO has repeatedly argued that it is not a threat to Russia, but this has done little to assuage Russian objections. A recent EU report ruled that Georgia instigated the August 2008 conflict with Russia.
There is also the problem of Kosovo. Russia warned it would recognize Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria (a region in Moldova) as independent states if the members of the United Nations recognized Kosovo. It is therefore no surprise that in a conflict Russia would support Georgia’s separatist regions. Though Russia is wrong to threaten Georgian sovereignty, its actions are not wholly unexpected or unprovoked, unlike in the German situation.
Though President Saakashvili continues to compare Georgia’s situation to the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, it is evident that this analogy is deeply flawed. Russia’s long-term aims are unclear, but if it plans to annex Georgia, it is going about it in a very different way than in the German case. Nevertheless, the West must remain vigilant to prevent a Russian infringement on Georgian sovereignty in the future.