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August 31, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Russia's invasion of Georgia

What are we to make of the military onslaught in Georgia? Is it "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing," as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said about Czechoslovakia in 1938? Or, do we have a strong national interest at stake that might warrant getting involved in one way or another? Like most things in the foggy world of diplomacy, the answer is somewhere in between.

First, a quick review of the facts as we know them: In early August the Republic of Georgia sent army units to occupy Tskhinvali, the capital city of South Ossetia, which is part of Georgia but with a distinct ethnic identity. (North Ossetia, on the northern slope of the Caucasus Mountains, is part of Russia.) This was not a sudden, precipitous action, as the Russians claim, but was part of a long, ongoing showdown with separatist forces. On August 8, Russian jets bombed various targets in Georgia, and its Army moved into South Ossetia, forcing the Georgian units back. Within a couple days Russian tanks were advancing further into Georgia, taking the city of Gori, along the only road that connects the capital Tblisi to the Black Sea. Realizing that its situation was hopeless, Georgia pleaded for a truce, and the 2,000 Georgia army troops stationed in Iraq were airlifted by the U.S. Air Force back home to defend their own country. Thereafter, Russia began a series of ambiguous (or duplicitous, rather) moves, announcing a withdrawal one day and then reinforcing their outposts and/or renewing hostilities the next day. Russian naval units blockaded the port of Poti, but a U.S. military vessel was able to unload emergency supplies at another port further south, Batumi. The Russian Parliament recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (another separatist region of Georgia), a prelude to absorption into the Russian Federation. After three weeks, Russian forces still control South Ossetia.

To put this conflict in proper context so as to clearly frame the alternative policy responses, we should bear in mind some of the following considerations:

The strategic angle

Georgia is eager to join NATO, and President Bush recently tried to convince our NATO allies to agree to this in his recent summit meeting in Europe.Two other former Communist countries, Croatia and Albania, were invited to join NATO at that same summit meeting. Bush also wants NATO to accept the Ukraine as a member, which would oblige American soldiers to defend a large former Soviet republic from Russian invasion. That is an utterly unthinkable prospect, and the fact that any person in a position of authority would make such an untenable commitment is cause for grave worry. (Speaking of which, three other former Soviet Republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, joined NATO in 2004, over Russia's strong objection. Technically, in case of invasion, the United States would be obliged to defend these new allies which are located on the doorstep of Mother Russia.)

Last month, the United States signed an agreement with the Czech Republic, pledging to defend them from ballistic missile attack using SDI ("Star Wars") technology. (The Bush administration does not intend to submit this deal to the U.S. Senate for ratification, however, so it does not have the legal force of an international treaty.)

The Russian government has made it clear in its series of propaganda / news inserts in the Washington Post that continued encroachment of NATO into Russia's traditional sphere of interest is antagonizing Moscow.

If Georgia was so eager to join NATO, the statesmen at NATO headquarters in Brussels must have been preparing to make a forceful response in defense of a prospective democratic ally, right? Wrong. WaPo columnist Charles Krauthammer ridiculed the vaunted Western Alliance for its failure to take any serious action: "NATO Meows." Not only did they fail to act, the official joint statement was worded so weakly that it was not even clear that aggression had taken place. They simply referred abstractly to "Russian military action" as being "inconsistent with its peacekeeping role." Putin and his henchmen must be laughing out loud at that; they correctly assessed that NATO countries would fail to respond forcefully, and they will no doubt seize the opportunity to exploit Western weakness in other regions.

The ethnic angle

South Ossetia is not the only part of Georgia in which there is a territorial dispute. Since the mid-1990s, Russia has repeatedly intervened in the region known as Abkhazia, in the northwest part of Georgia along the Black Sea. Anyone who has studied the geography of Eurasia knows that the Caucasus Mountain region on the south edge of Russia is almost as "Balkanized" as the Balkans themselves. It's a mishmash of feudal clans with various religious affiliations.

Not many people in the West know much about the culture of Georgia. They have been Christian since the Fourth Century A.D., and use a bizarre alphabet. In both respects the Georgian nation is similar to their landlocked neighbor to the southeast, Armenia. Georgia was the home to the most brutal "Russian" dictator of all time: Josef Stalin, whose real surname was Djugashvili.

The economic angle

If "you knew" there had to be an oil connection, you're right. Last month, WaPo business columnist Steven Pearlstein focused on Russia's desire to the control the oil pipeline that connects Azerbaijan to Turkey, which was built through Georgia over strong Russian objections. (They tried to demand a pipeline route through Russian territory -- through the violence-torn region of Chechnya -- so that they could control the flow.) That pipeline was a major strategic gain for the United States and Western powers, and Russia regarded that as intolerable. Georgia's greatest fear was that Russian troops would advance further south and destroy key part of that pipeline. That would have left Georgia's fragile economy in ruins.

The democracy angle

Opinions on Georgia's President Saakashvili vary widely. Some say he went too far in asserting sovereignty over the breakaway regions, and others say he was just doing his job. In the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, Tara Bahrampour reported on the decline in morale among the people of Georgia. Until recently, were very proud of finally having achieved a stable democracy after nearly two decades of post-Cold War chaos. Some Georgians resented President Saakashvili's embrace of free-market capitalism. Like many other formerly communist societies, many older people are used to a secure life without working too hard, and that is no longer possible there. If Saakashvili is forced out of power as a result of this crisis, it will signify a reversal of economic policy, and the anti-global populism of Putin's Russia would gain strength in Georgia as well. Georgia has long had a complex, ambiguous relationship with Russia, which is feared and yet seen as a protector at times. She has not observed any backlash against ethnic Russians living in Georgia, which is a good sign. Democracies are supposed to be more peaceful and civilized, but young, fragile democracies are sometimes prone to mob action.

It's worth noting that Georgia has endured repeated bouts of turbulence since becoming independent of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. A brutal despot named Zviad Gamsakhurdia was ousted in an armed uprising in 1993, and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was soon elected to lead the country. Though considered pro-Western (he was a key partner of Mikhail Gorbachev), his true sympathies and intentions were always unclear. He gradually lost the trust of his own countrymen and foreigners alike. Failure to create stable democratic institutions resulted in the growth of mafia clans that ran much of the economy. Since the late 1990s, Georgia has been begging for Western assistance, seeking to join NATO, which explains the deployment of troops to Iraq.

Russia's de facto ruler Vladimir Putin blamed American electoral politics for the violent conflict in Georgia, and their regular propaganda section in the Washington Post has been full of twisted stories full of self-pity, accusing the Georgian government of "aggression." It's a silly suggestion, of course, but there is something to the logic behind the accusation. Clearly, domestic politics cannot be entirely separated from this international crisis, and that means we need to consider the McCain vs. Obama factor. (See below.)

What are we to do?

Given the remote location of Georgia, next to Russia but very hard to reach from Western Europe, there is a fundamental geopolitical limitation on how much pressure the United States can exert in the region. Besides, our armed forces are already stretched very thin across the globe thanks to "The Surge" in Iraq, and there simply aren't any sizable reserve forces available for an unforeseen emergency conflict such as this one. But contemplating the deployment of U.S. ground troops in defense of Georgia is rather divorced from reality. What we actually can do is provide varying degrees of moral and material support to the Georgian government, especially restocking their depleted armaments, and punishing the Russian government in various ways -- via trade sanctions, diplomatic measures, etc.

WaPo columnist Jim Hoagland (who has strong credentials in national security, and is usually a "hawk") suggests that Obama's cautious initial reaction was justified, both in substantive terms (strategic considerations) and political terms (getting elected). Obama was lucky in a sense that the need to keep his party united at the convention in Denver served to restrain him from making a stronger statement against Russia just to show he isn't a foreign policy lightweight. Hoagland thinks that Georgia might be an opportunity to show the advantages of the diplomatic "soft-power" approach favored by Obama, but it might just as easily expose the extreme limitations of that approach.

One reason why the United States must help the Georgians resist, nevertheless, is that Georgia is one of the few remaining countries with a substantial number of combat troops helping to stabilize Iraq. If we don't stand by one of our view remaining allies -- for whatever real military power they can contribute -- then there won't be much reason for small and middle-size countries to cooperate strategically with the United States in the future. So even though we can't do very much directly, we should continue to offer large-scale economic relief aid to the Georgians, and to provide funds for pro-democracy programs in the Caucuses region, and perhaps even in Russia itself. The time has come for us to stop pretending that we can get cooperation from Moscow. The Putin-Medvedev regime is clearly hostile to our interests, and there is a tight connection between their authoritarian tendencies and aggressive foreign policy. We should make it clear that the status quo is unacceptable, and that Russia must either reform or be isolated diplomatically. For the time being, Russia can go on sneering at us, and we must gird ourselves for a long, grim tug of war -- Cold War II, perhaps.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 01 Sep 2008, 2: 10 AM

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