In the summer of 2008, Putin and Bush were in Beijing for the Olympics when Russian troops moved into Georgia in response to what the Kremlin called Georgian aggression against South Ossetia. Peter Baker of The New York Times described the U.S. response:
Bush confronted Mr. Putin to no avail, then ordered American ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with American military personnel present. Mr. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts.
Baker, an expert on the Bush presidency and Russia, reported that the White House considered more aggressive action, such as bombing tunnels to block Russian troops and arming Georgia with antiaircraft missiles. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bristled at what she called "chest beating," Baker reported, and Bush's team voted against military action. Russia stopped short of Tbilisi, but it left troops in areas it promised to evacuate under a cease-fire.
"We did a lot, but in the end there was not that much that you could do," said James F. Jeffrey, Bush's deputy national security adviser.
The United States was caught off guard and impotent on Georgia, and again with regard to Ukraine, because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the cynicism and pragmatism that motivates Putin. The revolution in Kiev created concerns among the large Russian population in Crimea, and Putin exploited it to satiate his (and his country's) appetite for new territory and power. Julia Ioffe of the New Republic explains:
We didn't think Putin would do this. Why, exactly? This has often puzzled me about Western analysis of Russia. It is often predicated on wholly Western logic: surely, Russia won't invade [Georgia, Ukraine, whoever's next] because war is costly and the Russian economy isn't doing well and surely Putin doesn't want another hit to an already weak ruble; because Russia doesn't need to conquer Crimea if Crimea is going to secede on its own; Russia will not want to risk the geopolitical isolation, and "what's really in it for Russia?" — stop. Russia, or, more accurately, Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat. Trying to harness Russia with our own logic just makes us miss Putin's next steps.
Rather than walk inside Putin's shoes, Bush sees his soul and President Obama speaks of a world in which "the tide of war is receding." Secretary of State John Kerry dismisses the invasion of Ukraine as "a 19th-century act in a 21st-century world." They're like new guys at a dangerous bar admiring the drapes while their wallets walk out the door.