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"
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Emboldened by the prospect of membership in the world’s most daunting military bloc, Georgia has had scant reason to compromise over the separatist regions. Were NATO to have admitted Georgia (the prospects seem dimmer than ever now) Georgia could have turned such disputes into casus belli between Moscow and the West. But that the United States would even consider proposing Georgia for membership in NATO reflects a blindness to the consequences of the first two rounds of NATO expansion and defies elementary strategic logic. Leaving aside how enrolling a tiny, technologically backward nation located in the remote Caucasus region jibes with NATO’s treaty-adjured mission to “promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area,” the next round could kill what remains of Russia’s strategic cooperation with the West—cooperation the West will need, for example, to fight Islamic extremism in Central Asia, contain nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, and control the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And Russia, with vast reserves of oil and gas, its arsenal of ICBMs, its million-strong conventional forces, its advanced arms industry, and its close relations with states like Iran, Syria, and North Korea, retains considerable capacity as a maker or breaker of international equilibrium. The West needs Russia on its side, much more than it could benefit from admitting Georgia to NATO, and even more than it would profit from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa pipelines. Moreover, NATO’s previous encroachments into formerly Soviet terrain, in conjunction with NATO’s 1999 war to prise Kosovo from Yugoslavia (an historic Russian ally and fellow Orthodox Christian nation) ignited in Russia the very anti-Western passions that have propelled nationalistic Vladimir Putin to sustained approval ratings of between 70 and 80 percent and threaten a new cold war. (When, in February of 2008, the United States recognized Kosovo’s independence, Putin objected angrily, warning that a precedent was being set that would apply to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.)

Putin has strongly and repeatedly voiced objections to NATO’s proposed expansion. Most notably, in February of 2007 he delivered an address in Munich that expressed a consensus—still valid—among the Russian political elite and people as a whole. After obliquely inveighing against the hegemonic pretensions of the United States, Putin called the upcoming enlargement an attempt “to impose new dividing lines and walls on us,” and “a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” He need not be paranoid to discern in U.S. foreign policy evidence of hegemonic intent. The 2002 National Security Strategy declared that, “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States,” and abandoned deterrence—the dominant peacekeeping principle of the Cold War. The Strategy issued in 2006 went further, proclaiming that, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”—an implicit threat to Putin’s autocratic regime, rendered all the more cogent by the “color revolutions” that American NGOs supported in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The Bush administration’s plans to station elements of a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe have also poisoned relations with Moscow, especially since the shield could conceivably be deployed to shoot down Russian ICBMs after a first strike by the West. This is a strategically defensible apprehension in view of America’s continuous upgrading of its nuclear arsenal and its drive to establish nuclear primacy, plus the ongoing decay of Russia’s atomic weapons.

Since Saakashvili came to power, U.S. policy toward Georgia has been marked by ignorance of the Caucasus’ history, and by aggressive assertion of lofty ideals divorced from realities on the ground. Whatever Saakashvili says about Georgia’s relations with Russia now, the two countries share a deep history that complicates the present. Georgia, in fact, owes its very survival as a state to Russia. In 1783, the Georgian King Irakli II signed the Treaty of Georgiyevsk with Russia that would allow Russia to annex his country two decades later. The Georgians, wearied by Mongol, Ottoman, and Persian invasions, had for two centuries been pleading for Russian protection; to get it they were ready to surrender their sovereignty.

Georgia’s problems with South Ossetia and Abkhazia stem from age-old internecine hatreds, accusations of massacres, and the two separatist regions’ longstanding fears of what they regard as Georgian imperialism. Ethnically distinct from Georgians, the Ossetians are an ancient Iranian-Caucasian Christian people that the Mongol and Turkic invasions of the Middle Ages drove high into the rockbound barrens of Caucasus Mountains. Only Russian suzerainty over the region, established in the nineteenth century, allowed them to return to the fertile lowlands; whence the historical Ossetian amity toward Russia and view of Russia as something of a savior. Ossetia’s division into North and South is artificial and stems from Joseph Stalin’s tenure as commissar of nationalities in the 1920s, during which the future dictator drew the multiethnic Soviet Union’s administrative boundaries in accordance with a policy of “unite-and-conquer,” joining peoples with longstanding enmities into various “republics” and “autonomous zones” that would inevitably quarrel among themselves and therefore look to the Kremlin to keep the peace. Stalin (né Dzhugashvili), himself of Ossete and Georgian parents, split Ossetia, placing the southern half in Georgia (and giving it a measure of Soviet-style pseudo autonomy) and the northern half in Russia.

The peace collapsed with the dissolution of Kremlin rule in the region. In 1990, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, the South Ossetians declared independence from Georgia. In response, the Georgian leader at the time, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, abolished their autonomy. The South Ossetians then revolted against Tbilisi and ethnic Georgians fled South Ossetia en masse. Yeltsin brought about a cease-fire in 1992, under which Russia, with Georgia’s consent, stationed troops in South Ossetia, ostensibly to keep the peace. Since then clocks in Tskhinvali have run on Moscow time; the ruble has served as the main currency; and Russia has granted citizenship to a majority. Saakashvili often vowed to impose his writ on South Ossetia, but the presence of Russian troops, to say nothing of the vehement anti-Georgian sentiments of the population, led to an often incendiary stand-off, with clashes occurring right up to the outbreak of the war.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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