A great deal of ink has been spilled over the last month about the proximate causes of the fighting in the Caucasus. Abkhaz, Georgians, Ossetians and Russians have all presented conflicting accounts of who fired first—with timelines that stretch back to the 18th century. Meanwhile, the debate in the West has centered over whether the efforts to enlarge NATO to Russia’s doorstep were foolhardy and provocative, or timely and essential for the preservation of the Euro-Atlantic community.
But even if the Georgian crisis had not occurred, something was bound to happen. Two separate—and unrelated—events that occurred in 2003 set in motion a series of developments that, because they were left unaddressed, help to explain why Russia decided to draw a line in the sand and why NATO’s response has been relatively anemic. Even now, the Western alliance seems unable and unwilling to undertake the frank conversation needed—to define exactly what NATO is supposed to be doing; and in so doing is setting itself up for further failures.
From the Russian side, the road to Georgia began in earnest on October 26, 2003. That was the day Russian president Vladimir Putin was supposed to fly to the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova to sign an agreement designed to end the “frozen conflict” between the central government in Chisinau and the breakaway region of Transdnistria. The memorandum, which had been drafted by Putin’s special envoy Dmitry Kozak, provided for the preservation of Moldova’s territorial integrity but would give the separatist region a great deal of autonomy, by transforming the country into a federation. In practical terms, it meant that the pro-Western aspirations of the central government would now be balanced by the pro-Russia bent of the Transdnistrians. The opening point of the so-called “Kozak memorandum” was that the new federal state would be both neutral and demilitarized. Or, to put it another way, Moldova would be “lost” to the West.
At midnight, Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin contacted Putin to tell him that the deal was off. According to Russian political commentator Alexey Pushkov wrote in The National Interest last year:
As the story goes in Moscow, Voronin came under strong pressure from Javier Solana, the EU foreign-policy commissar, not to sign the deal. According to other sources, Voronin allegedly also had a phone conversation with Colin Powell, then the U.S. secretary of state. The message was clear: The West would not be happy if Voronin signed the Kozak memorandum. Later, U.S. diplomats denied that there had ever been a conversation between Voronin and Powell. Nonetheless, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, did confirm to me that Washington had opposed Voronin’s signing the document.
U.S. and European officials vigorously dispute this account, but this is the prevailing view that was believed not only by the Kremlin, but in other capitals of the post-Soviet space. Both Moscow and a number of Western-oriented governments, especially in Ukraine and Georgia, concluded that NATO rejected the idea that there should be a neutral “buffer” zone between Russian and Western interests. Moreover, both the Russians—as well as their neighbors—assumed that the West was playing for keeps—and this was going to be a zero-sum game. This was certainly their conclusion from the decision to go ahead with recognizing an independent Kosovo in 2008.