Moscow is not only seeking assurances from these countries that they will not seek to join the West. It is also seeking assurances from Western nations that they recognize this alleged sphere of special interest – and potentially give their tacit agreement to such new notions of limited sovereignty. That is one of the main issues embedded in a series of Russian policy pronouncements and the European security proposal of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. While no Western leader has yet endorsed this idea as official policy, one doesn’t have to travel very far in the diplomatic corridors before running across diplomats who are asking out loud whether some new and modern version of “Finlandization” might become an acceptable policy for countries whose prospects for Western integration seem to be sinking. ~Ronald Asmus

Something that never ceases to annoy me about Asmus’ sort of argument is the obliviousness to U.S. efforts to employ concepts of “balance of power, sphere of influence, and limited sovereignty” in its policies in different parts of the world. Humanitarian interventionists of the last two decades have taken it for granted that some states are not permitted to pursue their own internal policies free of interference. The idea of limited sovereignty was used to justify intervening in Kosovo, and it was the unspoken assumption behind the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq for twelve years. Neither of these had any international legal sanction. They were all obvious violations of state sovereignty, and hardly anyone in the political classes of the U.S. and western Europe batted an eye at any of them.

So it isn’t true that these concepts were abolished by a “belief in a new cooperative European security structure.” The vision the previous three Presidents pursued was one in which only the U.S. and our allies were permitted to put these concepts into practice. Over the last decade, especially after the recognition of Kosovo independence, Moscow started working on turning our own interventionist rhetoric and practice against neighboring states that the U.S. had made or was trying to make into clients. NATO expansion had brought the U.S. sphere of influence right up to Russia’s borders, and Washington wanted to continue expanding this sphere even farther into the former Soviet Union, despite the fact that pluralities or majorities in the relevant countries did not want to align themselves with the U.S. at the expense of good relations with Russia.

Washington wanted to create a balance of power that is distinctly unfavorable to Russia on Russia’s borders, and it wanted to secure a sphere of influence maintained by openly anti-Russian governments. It also wanted to make Kosovo an exceptional case, because it was fine to continue violating Serbian sovereignty, but it is now absolutey wrong to violate Georgian or Ukrainian sovereignty. The U.S. cannot trample on state sovereignty some of the time, actively expand its sphere of influence in the vicinity of other major powers and declare publicly an intention to create “a balance of power that favors freedom,” and then react with outrage and shock when other major powers imitate the U.S., attempt to limit the expansion of America’s sphere of influence and attempt to shift the balance of power back again in their direction.

As for this Finlandization talk, arguably the only country to which this really applies today might be Georgia. Very clearly, Russia does not want Georgia in NATO, and thanks to Saakashvili’s recklessness it has now made it virtually impossible for Georgia to gain admission to the alliance. As much as some Georgians may want to pursue a pro-Western orientation including membership in NATO, the reality is that NATO will not take Georgia in and Georgian foreign policy truly is constrained by what Russia will permit. No one in the West has to like this, but it is the reality. We can formally maintain the fiction that small states that are economically dependent on major powers are free to set their own foreign policies, but we are kidding ourselves if we think this is how things are going to work.

The separatist republics now under Russian protection are the important, complicating factors that Asmus does not discuss here. Prior to the war, Georgia was committed to “reintegrating” them, and theoretically the Georgian government is still committed to this virtually impossible goal, which created a major flashpoint between Georgia and Russia. Under those circumstances, Washington’s push to bring Georgia into NATO was disastrously provocative, because it raised the possibility that Georgia could gain Western protection and cover for forcibly reintegrating the separatist republics and because it would have provided a Western security guarantee to a government headed by someone who was virulently and vocally anti-Russian. Indeed, even before Georgia had gained membership Saakashvili believed that he could count on Western support in the event of a conflict over these territories. It is clear that the promise of “further enlargement of Western institutions” encouraged him in this reckless, ruinous course, and so it is hard to understand what could be gained by any of the parties involved by continuing the push for more enlargement.