It was only a matter of time before events would unfold as they did this week in the southern Caucasus region. Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, valued by the United States because of his anti-Russian stance, tried to bring the secessionist and quasi-independent republic of South Ossetia and its 80,000 inhabitants back under Georgian control.
Saakashvili gambled big, but ended up only provoking Russia – which had been waiting for just such an opportunity to teach Tbilisi a lesson. As a result, both South Ossetia and Georgia have been plunged into a humanitarian and political catastrophe.
At the NATO summit in Bucharest only four months ago, the United States and other new members of the transatlantic alliance pushed for a Membership Action Plan for Georgia. If more sceptical leaders – German Chancellor Angela Merkel included – hadn't prevailed back then, there would now be the situation that NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had explicitly warned against: he stressed that new alliance members should bring “added value, not added problems.”
The European Union signed an agreement with Georgia in 2006 under the auspices of the European Neighbourhood Policy with the aim of improving the country's access to the EU's single market. At the same time, the EU hoped the agreement – along with similar deals sealed with Armenia and Azerbaijan – would help solve the territorial conflicts in the troubled region.
The recent outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia poses a serious setback for EU efforts. But even in the context of the growing rivalry between Moscow and Washington in the Caucasus and the damage to Russian and Georgian ties, the solution to the present territorial conflict is only possible via European mediation. There is no way around having EU foreign policy take on more responsibility in the region.
Russian interest in the contested territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are clear: Moscow wants to keep and strengthen its influence in the “near abroad” after pulling out troops that were stationed there during Soviet times. Its methods for pursuing such a policy include making use of the “Russian citizens” in those republics, garnering the moral and political support of the elites, as well as offering direct financial support and economic investment.
If the EU becomes more involved in the Caucasus region's energy and security interests, this cannot succeed in confrontation with Russia. A security structure for an enlarged Europe – taking in former Soviet republics – will only be possible in cooperation with the Russian Federation. The promise that NATO would not expand eastward following the reunification of Germany – made to both the Soviet Union and later Russia – has been broken. A further expansion into the former Soviet territory would pose a considerable risk to the alliance's security policy.
In light of new asymmetrical threats around the world, NATO members in the coming years will not be able to avoid thinking about redefining transatlantic relations so that it includes both Russia and the former Soviet republics.
Dr Thomas Kunze is the director of the Europe and North America department of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin. Translation by The Local.