Why Russia’s forgotten war will speak almost as loudly as Trump at Nato summit


A column of Russian tanks moves towards the Roki tunnel in South Ossetia, Georgia, after the brief war there in 2008

A column of Russian tanks moves towards the Roki tunnel in South Ossetia, Georgia, after the brief war there in 2008CREDIT:DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP

This article first appeared in the Telegraph on July 11th. See more of my articles for the paper here

There is much anticipation about the messages Donald Trump will send at the Nato summit taking place in Brussels. 

But another actor making far fewer headlines embodies all the main challenges facing the security alliance in 2018.

Georgiais a small country, but represents the big issues of the day. Thorny questions over defence spending, operational commitments and a resurgent Russiawary of Nato’s eastward expansion are all played out in the nation of little over four million people.

Sat at the strategically important crossroads where Europe meets Asia, how the alliance handles the country’s hopes for Nato membership will say much about the current level of confidence in the alliance. It will also send a powerful message to Vladimir Putin.

Georgia spends more than the politically-charged figure of two per cent of its GDP on defence and is the second largest troop-contributing nation in Afghanistan today (it has had 33 soldiers killed in the country). It works with Nato naval forces in the Black Sea, is very pro-Western and seeks to join the EU. On paper it is doing everything asked of an aspirant new joiner to the security organisation.

But it has one big thing counting against it: geography.

“It is just in the wrong part of the world,” says Nicholas Redman of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a think tank. Bordered by Russia to the north and Russia-leaning Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south, it would be the furthest east Nato has ever pushed. Russia would not take kindly to such a move.

Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war in 2008, after which two regions of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – were annexed. Russian troops are still stationed in the country and show no sign of leaving. Even if relations between Tbilisi and Moscow are today tense but workable, the same could not be guaranteed were Georgia to join Nato.

Discussions about membershipstarted in the early 1990s, but only lukewarm support was offered to Georgia in response to the 2008 Russian military victory. Membership was spoken of ‘when not if’, but no firm plans ever materialised. Georgians have never forgotten this pledge, even if some in the alliance would rather they did. This presents two huge problems for Nato.

First, was Georgia to join Nato, what border would be recognised, asks Mr Redman: the sovereign border of 1992, or the de facto new line drawn by Russia in 2008?  The war has largely been forgotten and “there is a resignation by Western states that the two annexed regions are almost impossible to recover”. Many in the country disagree.

Nato’s fundamental principle – that an attack on one is an attack on all – would sit awkwardly in such a situation. Would existing members be happy to admit a new ally with such caveats?

The second problem for Nato is that the push eastwards over the last decade “appears to Russia to be an effort to rip countries from its orbit,” Mr Redman warns. There is no appetite in Nato right now to risk worsening the situation.

“There might be an anodyne statement like ‘we haven’t forgotten you’ but Nato has problems closer to home,”  he added, saying that the subject of Georgian membership is generally considered to be off the table.

If so, nobody has told the Georgians.

Speaking this week to the Telegraph, senior politicians from the country wereuncharacteristically united and resolute in their determination to join the alliance.

“The country has made significant reforms and Georgia is a much more progressive country than some that have met or are near to Nato membership,” said one member of the ruling party. “We would like to have a more concrete expectation of membership.”

A senior opposition politician agreed.

“Putin has gone on record as saying that if he hadn’t invaded Georgia in 2008, Georgia today would be a member of Nato,” she said. “His actions were extremely deliberate in dismembering our country.”

Any mention of Georgia at the Nato summit will be interpreted as either supportive of the country’s bid for membership, or taken as a sign the alliance would rather focus on other things. Either way, and beyond the razzmatazz taking place elsewhere at the summit, echoes from the forgotten war in Europe’s eastern outpost will be heard far and wide: from Washington to Moscow, in fact.

Sport as a metaphor for war

sport photoFriday the thirteenth puns aside, tomorrow could be a momentous and dramatic day for the world. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the athletics governing body, has demanded a response from Russia in the wake of the doping scandal revealed this week in a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The head of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe, admitted he was “completely shocked” by both the scale of the doping and the cover-up operations. He is new to the top job (but has held the deputy’s position for seven years), but his decision of whether or not to sanction Russia – named in the report as the chief offender – could have implications that reverberate even further than a doped-up, muscle-bound, unnaturally hirsute Russian female shot putter could hurl her four kilos.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s immediate reaction to the call for exclusion from all athletics competitions (including next summer’s Olympics) by the Canadian Dick Pound, author of the 335-page report, was dismissive. Continuing the recent communications strategy from the Kremlin of brushing off all criticism by questioning the motives and competence of the dissident voices and brazenly rejecting any suggestion of wrong doing, no matter how compelling the evidence, Russia initially denied the claims in the report. This position has since been revised – to a degree – with President Putin ordering his country’s athletics officials to root out any bad practices. Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Sports Minister, said “we have nothing to be ashamed of. We have problems, but we’ve never tried to cover them up”. It is doubtful whether the IAAF will agree.

Which leaves Sebastian Coe with a problem. Any ban, regardless of length, will be met with uproar by Russia. But if he feels strongly enough to impose a sanction without going so far as to ban Russia from the Rio Olympics next year, there will be howls of protest from those wanting a stand taken over doping in sport. So let’s assume, for a moment, that Russia is kicked out of the 2016 Olympics. Hold that thought.

The IAAF are not the only world sport governing body feeling the heat right now. Football’s equivalent, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is reeling after widespread accusations of graft and dodgy practice. FIFA’s head, Sepp Blatter is currently suspended whilst investigations into corruption roll on. The decisions to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and, bafflingly, the 2022 tournament to Qatar are being scrutinised. FIFA need to demonstrate the organisation has turned the corner, swept away the illegal practices and is a clean, reputable and responsible body.

What better way then, than to follow the spirit of the IAAF’s (possible) example by fundamentally overturning hosting decisions. Qatar 2022 is already looking doubtful. But If the IAAF point a scornful finger at Russia, would FIFA sniff an opportunity? Strength in numbers is always an attractive policy, especially when you are trying to convince a global audience. So, might they take the very controversial decision to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup? And if they did, what could the world expect by way of response?

Russia is currently hurting. Sanctions are biting and the oil price has collapsed. Crimea and Ukraine have been two successful foreign policy adventures (as far as Mr Putin is concerned) but there are domestic grumblings. There is even the suggestion, from a surprising number of Russia-watchers and nationals alike, that the crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai last week was orchestrated by the Russian state. I don’t buy that personally, but I have been shocked that the suggestion has been spoken of by many outside the usual conspiracy-theory brigade.  So if Russia were to suffer the double ignominy of expulsion from Rio 2016 and the loss of the 2018 World Cup and given the current political climate, could we expect a reaction in an altogether different arena?

NATO defences have been repeatedly probed in the last few years and just three weeks ago Russia’s ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, said that, as all political contacts with the West have been severed, “the only sphere left is culture”. An overt threat against NATO is out of the question, even accepting Russia’s love of heavy metal. But a more subtle, obfuscated attack might be a possibility. Georgia suffered waves of cyber attacks prior to the fateful and very brief war with Russia in 2008. Could the same (less the actual shooting war) be expected in, say, Estonia, or another Baltic state, an area traditionally considered (by Russians at least) to be in their sphere of influence? Outlandish? Possibly. But ridiculous? Before Crimea, Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17, I would have agreed. But if Russia loses both the Olympics and the World Cup who knows?

Sebastian Coe has a big decision to make tomorrow.