Today’s big political story in Europe is the release of the European Union report on last year’s war between Russia and Georgia. Both sides claim a degree of vindication from it: the Russians from the finding that Georgia started the war, the Georgians from the finding that there was prior Russian provocation.
The first finding, however, is much more important. Georgia’s supporters — who most notably included then-presidential candidate John McCain — have repeatedly denied or ignored it, asserting or implying that Georgia was responding to a Russian attack. To have the truth clearly and authoritatively stated is a major step.
On the other hand, no one ever disputed that there had been provocation: Russia had encouraged separatism in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, issuing their residents Russian passports and effectively promising — quite truthfully, as it turned out — that they could rely on Russian support in the event of a Georgian attack.
The big question, not just for the fact-finding mission but for any interested observer, is does provocation of that nature justify starting a war? If our painfully constructed apparatus of international law and multilateral institutions means anything, the answer to that has to be no. Russia’s conduct may have been wrong, but war is not the appropriate remedy.
Moreover, the provocation was only effective because it had the support of the local populations: the Abkhazians and South Ossetians didn’t (and still don’t) want to be part of Georgia. As an exercise in self-determination, events before the war left a lot to be desired; the process in Kosovo, for example (to which Russia strenuously objected), was much more credible. But the basic principle is the same.
From a central European perspective (I’m currently in Leipzig), relations with Russia are a perennial issue. While at one level Russia is the hereditary enemy — it was here 20 years ago that the movement that brought down the Soviet client state of East Germany began — it is also something that has to be lived with. America’s neocons can spit at Russia from a safe distance, but the Europeans have no such luxury.
It has therefore been interesting to see the priority given to Russia by German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the evident warmth of Russian congratulations this week on her re-election. Twenty years ago, the EU was preoccupied by the “German problem”, but even then it was possible to see that in the long run the bigger issue was the Russian problem.
The equally strong hereditary enmities between Britain and France and Germany and Poland, and so on, have been successfully overcome within the framework of the EU. It’s hardly surprising then that the major EU powers, particularly Germany and France, are unwilling to isolate Russia and keen to draw it further into the European net.
EU membership for Russia is still a long way off — not only Russia will have to change, but the EU will have to be much stronger and more self-confident before it can contemplate such a move. But when it does come, yesterday’s report might be seen as one of the milestones along the road.