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Asmus, Ronald D. A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West.

Asmus, Ronald D. A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 272pp. $27

In August 2008, Russia shattered the post-Cold War peace in Europe by invading the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Though only days long, that war dashed NATO's hopes to expand to the Caucasus and sparked fundamental reevaluations of American and European Union (EU) relations with Russia. Ronald Asmus's A Little War That Shook the World is an engaging read that combines the best available history of the war with a broader analysis of the geopolitical forces that led to it.

Asmus is well positioned to write this book. He was a senior Clinton official dealing with NATO enlargement, and since 2001 be has been a senior researcher at the German Marshall Fund.

Asmus has wide access to U.S. and EU officials, and although uncommonly well connected in Georgia, he is not a supporter of President Mikheil Saakashvili. While Russian sources were not forthcoming, overall this is a very well documented account.

The book offers a blow-by-blow account of prewar diplomacy and the conduct of the war, with lively portraits of key personalities. Asmus also puts the war in the context of post-Cold War Europe, arguing that the war was about much more than Georgia. Striking at Tbilisi sent a message to Washington and Brussels. It culminated Russia's decadelong frustration with an international order it believed to be fundamentally against it. From a Western perspective, former Warsaw Pact nations had been freely choosing to associate with NATO and the EU, in an environment where force and "spheres of influence" were pass6. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, saw instead encroachment and a running roughshod over Russian concerns (as when NATO ignored Russia on Kosovo). NATO's halfhearted moves toward admitting Georgia and Ukraine in early 2008 offered Putin a window to act. Georgia's "frozen" separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia provided a pretext that was aided by the rashness of Saakashvili and the dithering of the Europeans.

Asmus sheds light on important questions like whether the United States gave the "green light" to Tbilisi to escalate (Asmus convincingly argues it did not) and whether Russia's invasion was preplanned or opportunistic (Asmus believes it was preplanned). Ironically, Georgia's preparations for NATO membership hurt its military capability: when war started, 40 percent of its army was in Iraq or preparing to leave. According to NATO doctrine, Georgia had trained and equipped for peacekeeping operations, not territorial defense.

Asmus suggests that more adroit NATO diplomacy would have averted the war. He lays out a clear and compelling case, but given Russia's demonstrated willingness to incur costs, the claim is not fully convincing. Even President George W. Bush was far less willing to risk a U.S.-Russian conflict than were the Europeans. The disparities of interest, risk tolerance, and geography made the Western goal of a Georgia in NATO very difficult without a fight, but Asmus is correct that the United States and the EU could have better played their hands.

What emerges is a larger story of American overstretch and a failure to balance ends and means. The United States simultaneously wanted to have its way in the Balkans and the Caucasus; to obtain Russian support for Iranian sanctions, Afghan logistics, and counterterrorism; and to enjoy active EU support for all that, even as U.S. polices were highly unpopular among EU voters. Washington did not credibly back its Georgia policy militarily or politically, nor would it choose between competing goals. Asmus thinks more skill and resolution might have carried this through, but one wonders whether the bigger lesson isn't really about the finite nature of national power.


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Author:Burbach, David T.
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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