Britons must not forget their Georgian neighbours

Today marks the third anniversary of Russia's invasion of Georgia; a date which ought to remind David Cameron of a genuine security threat ahead of his trip to Russia this autumn.

Three years to the day - Russian tanks rumble through South Ossetia
Alexandros Petersen
On 8 August 2011 10:01

Events further afield must not distract British and European decision-makers from the real security threats in their neighborhood.  

Today is the third anniversary of Russia’s well-planned and deftly orchestrated invasion of Georgia. If we want to ensure that this sort of conflict does not again ignite within the borders of Europe, we had better reorient our strategic vision and reassess our foreign policy priorities.

David Cameron’s trip to Russia this autumn is an opportunity to signal such a shift.

This is not to say that Russia is the primary threat to Western security. To be sure, Russian agents have wreaked havoc in central London, Russian energy concerns set NATO allies against one another and after several post-mortum assessments it is clear that Russia was the aggressor against Georgia in August 2008.

But, while Vladimir Putin and his coterie of secret police-cum-cabinet members might like to harbour designs on their former Eastern bloc neighbors, Moscow is very unlikely to give the go-ahead for any aggression towards NATO or the EU.

No, Russia is no longer the threat to the West that she posed during the Cold War.  It is instead the so-called frozen conflicts in which she is enmeshed that pose the real threat to Western security. In fact, in ways that the Soviet Union was never able to do, the conflicts in Georgia, in which Moscow has aided small groups of separatists while cleansing whole swaths of the country of ethnic Georgians, affect the average Briton’s daily life.

These areas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and other Russian-sponsored enclaves in Azerbaijan and Moldova, export all manner of iniquities, usually with the direct collusion of the occupying Russian military units. 

The organized crime groups responsible for most of London’s drugs, prostitutes and illegal weapons have bases and operate with impunity in Georgia’s occupied territories. Moreover, there have been at least three publicized instances in which Georgian officials have caught uranium smugglers passing through these territories. The masses of Russian forces in place had obviously turned a blind eye.

Would this change if the areas were under Georgian control?  Most likely. Georgia is by most measures one of the least corrupt, most professionally policed countries in Europe. It consistently ranks ahead of a number of EU member states in studies conducted by the World Bank, NATO and the United Nations.

However, these direct concerns for British subjects are not going to be ameliorated any time soon. That is unless the UK and other NATO countries live up to their already stated commitments to Georgia and pressure Moscow to pull back to lines agreed immediately after the conflict in a cease-fire procured by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and unless British and NATO decision-makers come to realize that while Russia may not be a direct military threat to them, it is to their neighbors. 

If over a number of years the West is seen as doing nothing about the current occupation, what is to stop Moscow’s troops from penetrating deeper into Georgia or following up current provocations in southern Ukraine with a similar military incursion?

All of this may be on the periphery of NATO and the European Union, but it nonetheless is happening in Europe, with direct consequences for European stability and quality of life. 

When speaking with his Russian counterparts, David Cameron should put it exactly this way.  Georgia may be Russia’s neighbor, but in an interconnected world it is also Britain’s. 

It is time to clean up the neighborhood.

Alexandros Petersen is author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West.

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