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"

To the west of South Ossetia lies the Republic of Abkhazia. Annexed by Russia in 1810, but joined to Georgia by—again—Stalin, Abkhazia is home to the virulently anti-Georgian, Abkhaz people, about one fifth of whom are Muslims who look to their (Muslim) brethren across the border in Russia for support. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhaz separatists, aided by Russia, expelled Georgian troops from the republic, and a quarter-million ethnic Georgians fled with them. In 1994 Abkhazia declared independence (recognized by no one). Most Abkhaz are now Russian citizens. At least until the current war, CIS and UN peacekeepers patrolled the Abkhaz border with Georgia. Saakashvili pledged to recover Abkhazia, but UN-sponsored negotiations foundered, and no resolution has been in sight for a long time. Formally, at least, all sides—Georgia, Russia, the United States, and the European Union—recognized the sacrosanct nature of Georgia’s borders—the same borders Stalin had drawn precisely in order to provoke the very conflicts that erupted in the Caucasus region with the fall of the Soviet Union and that we see unfolding now. The sole reasonable solution to the conflict—referenda in the two republics on independence, accession to Russia, or return to Georgian rule—has, so far, not figured in peace negotiations. Saakashvili opposed the idea in the past, and the Bush administration continues to insist on Georgia’s territorial integrity—that is, on Stalin’s borders. There is little doubt that now neither the Ossetes nor the Abkhaz would choose to rejoin Georgia.

Perhaps Saakashvili believed that, with the world’s eyes on the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, he could launch a lightning assault on South Ossetia and reclaim the republic without substantial grief from Moscow, as he had Ajaria in 2004. His statements once the war began demonstrated that he expected real Western help in confronting Russia. Whatever prompted him to miscalculate, the strategic realities ignored by the Bush administration in pumping up Saakashvili’s ambitions reasserted themselves as soon as Moscow responded to Saakashvili’s gambit with the largest military assault, by land, sea, and air since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Within days, Georgia lost both South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Russia, two thousand Georgians were dead, tens of thousands had been displaced, foreigners were being evacuated, and Gori and Tbilisi, their airports bombed, appeared threatened.

As Russian bombs rained down on Georgia and Saakashvili pleaded for help from the West and for a cease-fire from Moscow, Putin stated bluntly that "Georgia's aspiration to join NATO . . . is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures,” and warned that, “the territorial integrity of Georgia has suffered a fatal blow." The Bush administration answered with boilerplate language of protest, failing even to dispatch Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region until six days later for rounds of shuttle diplomacy. Saakashvili complained that “all we got so far are just words, statements, moral support, humanitarian aid.” But neither the United States nor Europe will risk Armageddon for Georgia. For Saakashvili, game over.

The United States has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned Saakashvili, the poster-boy of the color revolutions, and left him at the mercy of Putin, who appears bent on exacting revenge. Moscow and the separatist leaders in both republics have pledged to charge Saakashvili in the Hague for genocide. The lessons that emerge from the Russia-Georgia war are clear: Russia is back, the West fears Russia as much as it needs it, and those who act on other assumptions are in for a rude, perhaps violent, awakening.

The historically volatile Georgians overthrew their two previous democratically elected leaders for much less than humiliation at Russia’s hands and what will be the permanent loss of their two coveted wayward regions. Bitter notes of resignation and reproach toward the West are already creeping into Saakashvili’s public pronouncements. “I have staked my country's fate on the West's rhetoric about democracy and liberty,” he wrote in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. He will take little comfort in remembering that the Bush administration, in adopting the outlandishly unrealistic National Security Strategy of 2006, did the same.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.

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