After Georgia attempted to impose its will on its breakaway province of South Ossetia, Russia has invaded Georgia and bombed it from the air. (See also blog coverage at A Fistful of Euros (also this), Crooked Timber, Randy McDonald).
This poses two questions: what will Europe do? And, what should Europe do? By Europe I mean especially the big European states — Germany, Britain, France, Italy, maybe also Spain and Poland — working together, either within the auspicies of the EU or outside it, although if it was the EU that decided to do something, presumably all EU states would be involved.
The first question is easy to answer: they will issue pious declarations calling for the fighting to stop, which the warring parties will ignore.
The second question is more interesting. We Europeans need to ask, whose side should we be on? In answering this, we should bear in mind that Georgia wants to join NATO and the EU, and has far better democratic credentials than Russia. There’s also the possibility of an oil pipeline going from Azerbaijan through Georgia, which would lessen Europe’s dependence on Russia for its energy. And if Russia gets away with bullying Georgia, they are more likely in future to bully Moldova, Ukraine, or even former-Soviet EU countries such as Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania.
It is therefore clear that it is in Europe’s interest that Georgia not be defeated in its struggle with Russia, and that Europe should therefore support Georgia. How? Europe should mobilise troops and move them near to the EU’s borders with Russia, and rebase fighter aircraft in Romania and Bulgaria, ready to intervene if necessary by making Georgia no-fly zone for Russian military aircraft. This would be a show of strength to demonstrate that Europe is serious. Europe should also talk about trade sanctions on either party if they refuse to stop fighting. (When I say “either party” that’s in order for Europe to pretend to be even-handed; but everyone would know it really meant Russia). If America wants to join Europe in any of this, they should be welcomed.
All of Europe’s support for Georgia should be conditional on Georgia allowing South Ossetia to have autonomy, followed by a referendum on independence within 10 years. If South Ossetians are daft enough to want to be a puppet state of Russia and live in poverty and squalor, rather than be part of the EU, then let them. (The same goes for Transnistria).
Regarding the possibility of an air war over Georgia, the fighter arm of the Russian air force consists largely of Soviet era Su-27 (“Flanker”), MiG-29 (“Fulcrum”) and MiG-31 (“Foxhound”) aircraft. There are also small numbers of post-1990 Flanker derivatives. With the exception of the Flankers, these aircraft are old and are more than matched by Europe’s Typhoon, F-16, Mirage 2000, and Rafale fighters. Furthermore, Russian fighter pilots do not get anywhere near as much peacetime flying as NATO pilots do. So it’s reasonable to assume that if Europe did intervene militarily to stop Russian aircraft flying over Georgian airspace, it would win any air war.