FLASHBACK: Only Minor Punishment for Russia Last Time It Sent Troops Across Border

By Patrick Goodenough | March 5, 2014 | 4:12 AM EST

Georgians protest Russia's military invasion of their country, on August 10, 2008. (AP Photo, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Five years ago Wednesday, NATO agreed to end a freeze in relations with Moscow, instituted in response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia seven months earlier. As the West mulls responses to Russia’s current actions in Ukraine, the anniversary of that NATO decision serves as a reminder of the small price the Kremlin paid for its aggression last time.

The move to end the suspension of NATO-Russia ties on March 5, 2009 came not because Russia had shifted its stance on Georgia – on the contrary, it was tightening its sway over the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – but because the new Obama administration was launching its “reset” with Russia.

One day after NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to resume the work of the NATO-Russia Council, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed the symbolic “reset button” to her Russian counterpart in Geneva.

Some European NATO members, notably Germany and France, were also keen to end the freeze – which they had never been enthusiastic about in the first place. (Russia is Europe’s top oil and gas supplier.) They supported the new U.S. administration’s arguments, prioritizing the need for Russian cooperation in dealing with Iran and Afghanistan.

But other partners, all former communist countries that joined NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were deeply skeptical, with Lithuania leading the objections to resuming contacts with Russia.

A commentary in a Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, on March 6 captured the mood.

“Something is not right,” it said. “Nothing has changed since last August. Russian troops are still stationed in bases in Georgia's breakaway and self-proclaimed republics, which were recognized by Russia despite protests from the West. Moscow is not giving up its spheres of influence in Ukraine, either. This means that the suspension of talks with Russia brought about no results.”

“After 60 years of NATO’s existence,” the commentary lamented, “empty gestures cannot be the most powerful weapon of the largest military alliance in world history.”

The August 2008 war broke out after Georgia launched an offensive against pro-Moscow separatists in South Ossetia. Russia sent in its troops, it said, to protect Russian citizens there – the same reason it is now giving for its stance on Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Many Western observers saw the Georgia incursion instead as part of a broader strategy by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to shut down any further NATO expansion into his backyard.

Both Georgia and Ukraine had earlier sought NATO membership action plans (MAPs) – a path to full membership in the alliance – but although the Bush administration championed the move, some European countries troubled by Russia’s strong objections refused to go along, and the decision was postponed.

NATO has since then reaffirmed that Ukraine and Georgia will become members at some future point – a position strongly supported by the Obama administration – but has yet to agree on actually offering the two aspirants MAPs.

In the days following the war in Georgia, which cost the small country one-fifth of its territory, Western countries were far from united on how to respond to Russia’s actions.

When European Union (E.U.) members held an emergency meeting in Brussels on August 13, countries like Estonia and Lithuania pushed for “consequences” for Russia, but German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier advised against “strong statements and one-sided condemnations.”

In Berlin, a government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel was “firmly convinced that this is not the time for looking into motives, for allocating blame, for denouncing anyone or for making final judgments.”

The West’s response then

In the end, Western actions in response to Russia’s aggression in the Caucasus that year included:

--The suspension of Russia-NATO cooperation, a step reversed seven months later.

--The U.S. and Britain pulled out of scheduled joint naval exercises with Russia, and NATO withdrew from planned military maneuvers with Russia.

-The U.S. pulled the plug on a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Moscow. (The Obama administration resubmitted the agreement to Congress in 2010 and it entered into force in 2011.)

–The E.U. briefly suspended talks on a new E.U.-Russia accord, but decided not to impose sanctions against Russia, despite calls to do so by some member states in eastern Europe.

Other options proposed by various quarters at the time, but not pursued by Western government, included:

--Defying Russian opposition and granting NATO MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine.

--Further delaying Russia’s World Trade Organization accession.

--Expelling Russia from the G8 group of leading industrialized nations and freezing it out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

--Withdrawing support for Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just 20 miles away from Russian-occupied South Ossetia.

The West’s response now?

Actions currently being considered in response to Russia’s intervention in Crimea include asset freezes, visa bans, economic sanctions, and suspending Russia from the G8 – a move reportedly resisted by Germany.

“We are examining a whole series of steps – economic, diplomatic – that will isolate Russia,” Obama said at the White House on Monday.

As of Wednesday, few punitive steps have been taken. The U.S. and other G8 members have suspended participation in preparatory meetings in the run-up to a summit Putin is due to host in June; the U.S. has suspended military-to-military contacts and bilateral economic dialogue; and the U.S. and Britain are not sending government delegations to the Paralympic Games in Sochi.

Some Republicans are urging the administration to revisit shelved plans to deploy missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, and to speed up MAPs for both Ukraine and Georgia.

Speaking in Kiev on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. has “lots of options” to respond to Russia’s actions, but was focused on de-escalation.

“There are lots of tools at the disposal of the president of the United States and the United States of America and other countries,” he told reporters. “But none of us want to escalate this so that it becomes the kind of confrontation where people can’t find a reasonable path forward and where, as a result, you’re stuck in a place that’s very hard to climb down from.”

“That is not where we would like to see this go, which is why President Obama is stressing and wants me to stress our effort to try to find a way forward which allows Russia to have its interests – and they do have some interests – to be properly listened to and properly taken into account.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow