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Analysis & Opinion
03.09.08 The Years Wasted
Comment by Georgy Bovt

Having recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and basically following the five-day war between Russia and Georgia, Moscow now finds itself in a situation that borders on diplomatic isolation, although almost nobody in the world denies the fact that it was Georgia, not Russia, that was the first to start military action. This seems to be an unprecedented case in history, when a country formally seen by everyone as the aggressor (that is, the one that was the first to attack) enjoys so much support, while the country that stood up to the aggressor is criticized, and even ostracized, by the global majority.

Even Russia’s closest allies – members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – limited themselves to reserved expressions of “understanding the motives for Russia’s actions,” but stopped short of unconditional support. And in the West, voices in support of sanctions against Russia or even of its isolation sounded louder than ever. Was this situation inevitable? Was there any way to somehow soften or forestall such a reaction from abroad?

Lots of people today are inclined to affirm that not only was the reaction from the West easily predictable—it was also the only possible one. Such a reaction is considered inevitable in light of Russia’s significant strengthening of positions in the last few years: the Western world did not have enough time to adapt to the increase in their partner’s activity, especially since this activity was in the form and in the areas different from what the West expected this partner to do. Russia became a threat in the geopolitical sphere, perhaps even to a larger extent than the vigorously developing China, even though, objectively, China’s challenge to the West should probably not be considered as less significant than a challenge from Russia.

Perhaps, if we judge the situation as of August 8, when the Russian military operation in South Ossetia began in reply to the Georgian army’s attack on Tskhinvali, we can agree with this statement. But August 8 was preceded by many years of interaction between Russia and the West – even after the Cold War, when it appears that multiple new channels of bilateral and multilateral communication were created. Were they employed at a critical moment in time in the most effective form and mode? Alas, the answer to this question is negative. Per se, the system of communication between Russia and the West today is almost at the same level as it was a decade and a half ago. So, as it turns out, more than ten years of meetings in the Council of Europe, the only European structure that Russia is a member of, were spent in vain.

As we found out today, no thick tissue of interaction at various levels grew from the multiple contacts, negotiation meetings and memberships in all possible organizations – both bilateral and multilateral. Such interaction could have softened the poignancy of the reaction (and the level of misunderstanding) in cases of acute international crises. No new (joint) signal system was ever born, no system of common notions, values, a common cultural code or even common habits.

A friend of mine, a diplomat who is now employed by a large international organization, recently complained: our diplomats rarely talk to anyone about developing some joint initiatives or decisions; they are not very interested in such forums as conferences, round tables and seminars – what is called “brainstorming.” Joint intellectual exercises are not really respected.

Of course, when it comes to contacts at a higher level –at the level of ministries, for example – there is a lot of experience that has already been accumulated, as well as in the experts’ work on elaborating on the contents of certain documents, which have basically already been agreed on at the highest levels. However, when it is a matter of what is called routine, everyday cooperation on a mass of seemingly secondary issues, there is nothing there. Russians remain aloof.

Not to mention the fact that Russian diplomacy in general is interested in an extremely limited circle of international issues: matters of humanitarian interaction and ecological problems arouse almost no interest; participation in various cultural and humanitarian events is rather perfunctory. Meanwhile, it is in such multiple diversified contacts that we can reach a level of understanding that might prove to be decisive in critical moments.

Another trait of modern Russian diplomacy is its aim to “stand up to” the West by all means, to replying by some sort of action, to be different from the Western diplomacy, as if achieving any common goals is a priori excluded in favor of counterposing our own special position, every time. And then, after Russian diplomacy kept demonstrating that every time it follows its own peculiar course, at a critical moment it turns out that it completely lacks any universal, common human logic and motivation. Its “peculiarity” is finally acknowledged, but it has turned into something completely unexpected – a precursor of isolation.
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