Dispatch September 2008

Russia: Back to the Future

Washington should establish a new framework, based partly on an old paradigm, for its relations with Moscow

Despite Russia’s decisive rout of the U.S.-trained and equipped Georgian military during the August war in the Caucasus, the crisis that has pitted the United States against Russia has not ended. Instead, it is entering a protracted second round, with the gravest potential consequences. On September 3 the White House pledged to “deepen trade and investment ties with Georgia,” and announced a “multiyear commitment of $1 billion in support of Georgia’s economic and recovery needs.” Contrary to what one might expect of such supposedly benign succor, the U.S. has been delivering this support via the warships of the Sixth Fleet, which have docked in Batumi and the port of Poti—an area which was, until September 13, occupied by Russia. On September 4, Vice President Dick Cheney, in Tbilisi for a meeting with Georgian President Mikheil Saakahsvili, denounced Russia’s “illegitimate, unilateral attempt” to forcibly alter Georgia’s borders. He also affirmed that the United States remains “fully committed” to Georgia’s induction into NATO, and called on “the free world to rally to the side of Georgia.” Cheney was echoing the rhetoric of confrontation that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had delivered the previous evening: "The free world cannot allow the destiny of a small independent country to be determined by the aggression of a larger neighbor."

Both Cheney and Rice persist in misrepresenting the Georgia war as having been instigated by Russia. This is no mere matter of forensic posturing. Just who fired the first shot bears crucially on what American policy toward Georgia should now be, since eligibility for NATO accession should, at least in theory, stem from a prospective member state’s demonstrated ability to conduct sober foreign and defense policies. The colossal error Saakashvili committed when he attacked South Ossetia (and the Russian forces stationed there) proves that he lacks the sangfroid, judgment, and sagacity needed to govern a country in a volatile region bordering Russia. He certainly deserves no billion-dollar reward from his American sponsors for having so heedlessly brought the roof down on himself and his compatriots.

It will take years to rebuild the Georgian armed forces, which Russia largely destroyed in a few days. White House, State Department, and Pentagon officials have stressed that no decision has been made regarding further weapons shipments to Georgia. But Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has reaffirmed the U.S. military’s commitment to the country. This, despite the damning evidence that has emerged concerning just how the armed forces performed under Saakashvili’s command during the war. An article published on September 2 by the New York Times describes how the Georgian military reacted to the Russian blitz it provoked by shelling and then invading South Ossetia.

Georgia’s Army fled ahead of the Russian Army’s advance, turning its back and leaving Georgian civilians in an enemy’s path. Its planes did not fly after the first few hours of contact. Its navy was sunk in the harbor, and its patrol boats were hauled away by Russian trucks on trailers.

The David-and-Goliath metaphor now so often applied in describing the Russia-Georgia conflict has merit only if David chooses to stand and fight, not if he drops his slingshot and bungles his way through an ignominious retreat. There were, as far as we know, no valiant Georgian last stands against the Russians; rather, satellite television reports showed the Georgian military and police hightailing it to the relative safety of Tbilisi. Georgia, in any case, indisputably lost the war within twenty-four hours and started suing for peace. No surprise there: the numerical disparity between Russian and Georgian forces (more than ten to one in regular infantry troops alone) makes different outcomes tough to imagine – something Saakashvili should have pondered before shelling Tskhinvali.

An obvious conclusion presents itself: Georgia cannot begin to defend itself against Russia. So, were it to join NATO, the onus of repelling Moscow in future conflicts would fall on other member states—in other words, the United States, the country Saakashvili expected to come to his rescue, but which did nothing as Russia destroyed, disarmed, or dismantled whatever Georgian units did not manage to desert the battlefield quickly enough. Yet in light of all the verbal support Cheney and Rice have given Georgia since the war, and the billion-dollar aid package provided by the White House, Saakashvili could be forgiven for wondering just what the United States’ policy toward his country really is.

Urgent questions arise. Since American support emboldened Saakashvili to launch his nearly suicidal assault on South Ossetia, why are senior American officials still pledging to bring Georgia into NATO, supplying the country with aid, and reaffirming their relationship with the Georgian military? When Russia began thrashing Georgia, the White House, clearly reluctant to antagonize Moscow, quickly ruled out military action. In the future, would an American president really be prepared to send troops to the Caucasus to fight on Georgia’s behalf? Where would the United States, still heavily committed in Iraq and short of boots on the ground in Afghanistan, find those troops? Leaving out the Western “values” Georgia and the United States now purportedly share as allies, and adopting a Realpolitik perspective, why should Washington maintain a military alliance with a tiny, weak, resource-poor country under unpredictable leadership, if doing so alienates a nuclear-armed Russia stretching from Europe almost to Alaska? The hydrocarbon pipelines traversing Georgia figure into U.S. strategic calculus but cannot justify U.S. protection. They funnel only a million barrels of Central Asian oil a day to Western markets; whereas Russia, one of the most hydrocarbon-rich countries on earth, pumps ten million barrels of crude a day and provides Europe with roughly a third of its natural gas. Looming over all these questions is the most daunting issue of all: is the United States, to save Tbilisi, truly willing to put its own population at risk of Russian nuclear retaliation?

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.

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