PARIS: At the very moment China was getting a “gold medal in diplomacy for the success of the opening ceremony in Beijing, Russia earned a “red card for the extreme and disproportionate violence of its military intervention in Georgia. Whereas China intends to seduce and impress the world by the number of its Olympic medals, Russia wants to impress the world by demonstrating its military superiority. China’s soft power versus Russia’s hard power: the two countries’ choices reflect their very different levels of self-confidence.
China may play the victim versus the West, but its leaders know that their country is back on the world scene at a level that they deem appropriate and legitimate. Of course, domestically, China’s leaders lack confidence and behave accordingly towards their citizens. Yet, as China takes minuscule steps forward, Russia takes giant steps backward.
For many years now, Georgia and Russia have been playing with fire, and war in the Caucasus looked preordained. Each side was waiting for a false move by the other to play its hand.
It is more than likely that the young and impulsive Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili fell into the trap that he had helped to create. He wanted to demonstrate to his Western partners that Georgia needed NATO protection from Russia, and that accession was therefore urgent.
Regardless of whether some in the United States encouraged Saakashvili, he did not expect – but he should have – the “hyper-charged reaction from Russia. For it is clearer than ever that Vladimir Putin is still in charge. The opportunity that Saakashvili presented to him to signal to the world Russia could no longer be humiliated was simply too tempting.
Well aware of Russia’s emergence as a growing energy super-power, of the relative weakening of US clout and determination, of Europe’s deep divisions between pro-Russians, such as Germany and even more so Italy, and anti-Russians (mostly from the EU’s newest members in eastern Europe), and of the United Nations’ paralysis owing to Russia’s veto power, the Kremlin is sending a strong message to the world: “the time for concessions is over. For the Kremlin, it is likely that South Ossetia and Abkhazia would remain under formal Georgian sovereignty only if the country did not join NATO.
Yet Russia, like Saakashvili, is playing with fire: its strategy of encouraging separatist forces in the two Georgian provinces may inflame separatist tendencies in other parts of the Russian Federation (remember Chechnya?).
Moreover, Russia is unnecessarily isolating itself from the world.
Above all, this crisis confirms the new hierarchy of powers that now exists in the world. In this new world, China and Russia are back and America, though still on top, is declining. As for Europe, while the European Union mediates, in doing so it is also demonstrating the limits of its influence.
The EU is truly “convincing only when it can use the seductive power of a membership card. But Russia is not interested in joining, at least not on Europe’s terms. Russians are well aware that Americans want their help in the Middle East; on other issues, they listen to Europe and America with a stance oscillating between indifference and brutality.
In the Caucasus, everyone is losing, though some more than others – foremost the civilians who have lost their lives or homes. Then comes the Georgian government, which has demonstrated its immaturity, if not irresponsibility. A lamb, after all, does not provoke a bear. But Russia, too, has unnecessarily damaged its international image. The Kremlin did not need such a display of unrestrained force and brutality to prove its case. China, in comparison, now looks like a respectable partner.
As for the West, it is confronted with a dilemma. Can it reward Georgians for the leaders’ irresponsibility by rushing the country into NATO? On the other hand, can it afford to grant Russia the de facto right to control, directly or indirectly, countries like Georgia today and Ukraine tomorrow?
The current crisis in the Caucasus does not mark the return of the Cold War, nor is it likely to mark the start of open warfare between Russia and the West; it is, more simply, the return of the traditional imperialism practiced by the Russian Empire more than a century ago.
China is, with the exception of Tibet, a satisfied and confident status-quo empire. Russia by contrast is a revisionist imperialist power, whose lack of self-confidence is returning to haunt the world.
Dominique Moisi, a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), is currently a Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).