What do you do when confronted by a bully? The first lesson you
learn as a child in the school yard is that reasoning and turning
the other cheek unfortunately does not work very well, and will
only get you a reputation as an easy victim. On the other hand,
knocking someone's teeth out because of a mean taunt is not the way
to go either. Producing an immediate, proportionate response is a
skill you have to learn.
In the schoolyard of international politics, much the same rules apply. Some countries tend to behave like bullies. The more other nations try to accommodate them in the cause of getting along, the more they will bully. The Soviet Union - and Russia today had long history of subtle and not-so-subtle aggression towards its much smaller neighbors - "the garden of the red czars" was one of the names for the Soviet empire and its "near abroad."
Unfortunately for the Russian leadership, many of those smaller neighbors are acquiring new, powerful friends and therefore a measure of protection. Bullies never like this. Three small former Soviet republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are now members of NATO, allies of the United States, Canada and almost all of Europe. Other former Soviet republics are applying to follow their lead, hoping to escape Russian dominance.
At the NATO summit in Bucharest in early April, the United States pressed for giving Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plans (MAPs) with a view to future NATO membership. Such plans were granted to Albania, Macedonia and Croatia, who have also been knocking on NATO's door. Unfortunately, Russian lobbying - maybe threats would be a better word - stopped the Europeans from endorsing MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine. The NATO summit communique promised action in the short-term future, but that was as far as it went. Russian bullying worked on this occasion.
But that's not the end of the story. Russia has also managed to entangle the future of Georgia with the status of Kosovo, the small Balkan nation that in February declared independence from Russia's ally Serbia. If the international community recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence, so the Russian government fumed, Moscow would go ahead and recognize the independence of Russian minority enclaves in former Soviet republics, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are part of Georgia and have been beset by Russian "peacekeeping" troops since the civil wars that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet space is littered with unresolved conflicts of this kind.
In the case of Kosovo's independence, Europe and the United States had enough at stake not to allow the Russian threats to stop their recognition of Kosovo. Almost a decade of involvement in the Balkans with no end in sight prompted the international community to support Kosovo, in the hope that some momentum for reconstruction and economic development could be gained and eventually allow international peacekeepers to come home. In the case of the United States, we still have 7,000 troops stationed in Kosovo on an ongoing basis.
Last week, Russia made its move - which was actually not as bad as might have been expected. It announced the opening of Russian consulates in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and offered to issue passports to any ethnic Russian who desired it and who would then be able to travel visa free across the border. (At least the Russian response was mainly of a diplomatic nature; President Vladimir Putin at one point even threatened Ukraine with nuclear war, if Ukraine persisted in seeking NATO membership.) More menacingly, Russia shot down a Georgian unmanned aerial vehicle on April 20.
Russia's maneuvers deserve a clear and firm response, first of all on principle. The United States and Europe need to point out to the Russian government that the situations in Kosovo and in the Georgian minority enclaves are by no means parallel. Georgia has at no time tried to ethnically cleanse and mass murder its Russian minorities, as Serbia tried to do with its Albanian population in Kosovo. This action was stopped by NATO in 1999, and it lost Serbia every moral right to govern the Kosovars.
Second, NATO needs to revisit the question of MAPs for Georgia and Ukraine as soon as possible, in order to reverse the decision taken in Bucharest. Bending to Russian pressure was wrong in the first place, and push-back in just such a measured and responsible form is certainly justified. Who knows, it might even teach the Russian bullies a lesson.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times