Dispatch August 2008

At Putin's Mercy

"The pitiable David-and-Goliath asymmetry of Georgia's dustup with Russia has obscured both the United States' culpability in bringing about the conflict, and the nature of the separatism that caused it in the first place"

Georgia’s forty-year-old president, the liberal Mikheil Saakashvili, may possess many admirable attributes—dashing looks, fluency in several languages (including English), a degree from Columbia Law school, and a heartfelt commitment to a Westward-looking future for his country—but strategic acumen, even plain old-fashioned common sense, do not, it is now tragically apparent, figure among them. Rather, Saakashvili is well-known in Georgia for his authoritarian streak and hotheadedness—the most damning character flaws imaginable in a confrontation with the calculating former spymaster and current Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin.

Also see:
Georgia's Guerrilla Option (August 13, 2008)
Russia's attack on Georgia raises the question of how weak states can defend themselves against strong states. By Reihan Salam

The Advantage of the First Move (August 11, 2008)
"The truth is, Russia has called the West's bluff on Georgia and won." By Robert D. Kaplan

Where Europe Vanishes
In the November 2000 Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan explored the roots of the Russia-Georgia conflict.

Saakashvili won presidential elections in 2004 promising to impose Tbilisi’s writ on the three Russia-backed rebellious republics of Ajaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. In short order, without firing a shot, he reclaimed Ajaria and sent its leader, Aslan Abashidze, fleeing to Moscow. But his reckless decision last week to shell and then invade South Ossetia (populated mostly by ethnic Ossetes holding Russian passports) and attack Russian forces stationed there, combined with his now obviously misplaced faith in the senior Bush administration officials, including President Bush himself, who have been glad-handing him since he came to power following the Rose Revolution of 2003, may yet undo his presidency and return Georgia to Russian vassalage.

The pitiable David-and-Goliath asymmetry of Georgia’s dustup with Russia, plus Saakashvili’s repeated hyperbolic declarations to satellite news stations, have obscured both the United States’ culpability in bringing about the conflict, and the nature of the separatism that caused it in the first place. (Among other assertions, Saakashvili has called Russia’s response to Georgia’s assault on South Ossetia “a direct challenge for the whole world,” and has said, “tomorrow Russian tanks might reach any European capital . . . [the war] is not really about Georgia but in a certain sense it's also an aggression against America”.)

The United States started cozying up to Georgia before Saakashvili’s time, during the ultra-corrupt presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. At Georgia’s request, in 2002 the U.S. began training, equipping, and modernizing the Georgian military for counterterrorism operations. It was a reasonable course of action in the wake of 9/11, and it especially made sense in view of the Baku-Supsa pipeline and plans to build the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline—the sole energy conduits to bypass Russia, thereby lessening the Kremlin’s potential stranglehold over gas and oil exports from Central Asia to the West. But rigged elections for the Georgian parliament in November of 2002 incited widespread demonstrations. With backing and direction from American NGOs, and possibly guidance from U.S. ambassador Richard Miles (the former chief of mission in Belgrade who had helped the Yugoslav opposition peacefully topple Milosevic), the Georgian opposition carried out the Rose Revolution, unseating Shevardnadze and eventually resulting in the instatement of the charismatic pro-American Saakashvili.

Once in office, Saakashvili quickly sought to ally his country with the West, voicing aspirations to join the European Union and NATO. The Bush administration, flush with enthusiasm for promoting democracy after “liberating” Iraq, and certainly aware of Georgia’s role as transit arena for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, was receptive. President Bush visited Tbilisi in 2005 and declared Georgia “a beacon of liberty,” even as troublesome signs of Saakashvili’s authoritarian streak were coming to light. The Georgian opposition has levied charges against Saakashvili of corruption and murder, and Western human rights groups, and even the State Department, have criticized him for the excessive use of force in suppressing demonstrations and restricting freedoms of the press, assembly, and political representation.

Soon Bush began promoting a third round of expansion for NATO and supported Georgia’s ambitions to join. (Two previous rounds, in 1999 and 2002, proceeded over strong Russian objections, and had encompassed the Baltic states and erstwhile Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe.) In April of 2007 President Bush signed into law the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act, which advocates, and allocates funding for, the accession to NATO of the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine (as well as Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia). The pledge of mutual defense enshrined in the North Atlantic Treaty declares that, “an armed attack against one [member] . . . shall be considered an attack against . . . all.” It was a protection Saakashvili hoped to avail himself of so as to free Georgia from the sphere of influence Putin was reasserting for Russia in former Soviet domains. Despite the fury to which the subject provoked Putin, the Bush administration lavished praise on Saakashvili and set about lobbying other NATO member states on his behalf, with mixed success.

The mere possibility that Georgia and Ukraine might join NATO prompted Russia to start flexing its military muscles and prepare for confrontation with Saakashvili and the West. In July of 2007 Russia suspended its participation in the Treaty of Conventional Forces, a landmark security accord of the post-Cold-War era. Apparently as a warning to Tbilisi, in August of that year a Russian aircraft fired a missile (which did not explode) onto Georgian territory. Clashes between Georgia and separatist militias in South Ossetia and Abkhazia increased; and although Saakashvili proposed autonomy to the two republics, he refused to rule out the use of force against them, scuppering the negotiations’ chances of success. In September of 2007, Russia successfully tested what may be the world’s most powerful conventional explosive device (dubbed Papa Vsekh Bomb, or the "Dad of All Bombs," by the Moscow media), a thermobaric, “air-delivered ordnance . . . comparable to a nuclear weapon in its efficiency and capability,” in the words of a deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff. Then, in a move reminiscent of the Cold War’s grimmest days, Russian TU-95 long-range bombers resumed round-the-clock patrols that had ceased with the fall of the Soviet Union. These bombers have repeatedly veered toward NATO airspace, inciting alliance members Britain and Norway to scramble their fighter jets to intercept them. The bombers always retreat, but this, and a Soviet-style military parade—the first since the collapse of the USSR—held on Red Square this year, signal one thing: Russia is back.

Neither the Bush administration nor Saakashvili got the message. Germany, France, and Belgium, however, fearful of antagonizing Moscow even more, and especially concerned about Georgia’s festering conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (stability and recognized borders are prerequisites for NATO membership) declined to endorse President Bush’s initiative to bring Georgia into NATO. At the alliance summit in April of 2008, despite appeals from President Bush, NATO refused to offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan (the first step toward accession) and postponed the issue until the next summit in December. Under the auspices of the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act, the United States has nevertheless continued to finance the general upgrading of the country’s military. About one hundred American military advisors were in Georgia when war broke out.

Presented by

Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.

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