Archive for September 8th, 2008

Georgia, Russia and America

Although the crisis involving Russia’s response to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia has left the front pages and has officially become “yesterday’s news,” I’m keeping my eye on this issue, looking at American, European and Russian media sources.   It still remains a place where dangerous miscalculations could create a crisis.

First, it’s become known that the US trained commandos who were involved in the attack on South Ossetia, increasing the conceivability of Russian charges that the United States instigated the crisis.  Indeed, the close contact between American and Georgian militaries on all levels make it unlikely that Georgia could have planned and mounted this kind of attack without the US knowing.  And though the Bush Administration may claim they tried to warn Georgia against being too aggressive, American foreign policy does not speak with one voice.

Vice President Cheney and others loyal to the ‘neo-conservative’ view have been bested by the State Department and new leadership of the Department of Defense, Robert Gates.  But when it comes to things such as the interaction between Georgian military officials and American, it’s possible some in the Pentagon thought it would be important for Georgia to regain control of its breakaway provinces before the election.  Georgia was perhaps the most loyal ally to the US in Iraq, especially after Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in  the UK, and President Shakashvili has been stridently pro-western and pro-American.  They may have worried that a future President wouldn’t give Georgia clear support to maintain it’s territorial integrity, and perhaps were afraid that a future Russia would be better able to respond than Russia today.  They may have thought that Russia would protest, but that Georgia could have a fiat accompli, with Russia unwilling to intervene.

Moreover, unconfirmed reports suggest that, as I noted last week in “Iran: One More War?”, Israel may have been planning to use Georgia as a main staging area for an attack on Iran.  If so, then Shakashvili may have found himself going from the height of confidence — close ally with the US, part of an intense international plan to hit Iran, and gain closer cooperation with both Israel and the US — to the pits, having probably lost permanently the breakaway provinces.  Not only that, but the Russians may have disrupted plans an Israeli strike against Iran, one which French President Sarkozy calls “inevitable” in a warning to Iran.  The Russians captured and destroyed a lot of equipment when they occupied bases and airports.  We know much if not most of it was American, some if it could have been Israeli.   They almost certainly shared some of what they learned with the Iranians.  Russian actions included bases outside the breakaway territories, as well as places elsewhere in Georgia hit by Russian missiles and planes.  In fact, one could imagine Georgian military action against the provinces as a first step in what would lead to a hit against Iran.  If Russia had been slower in responding, an Israeli strike on Iran from Georgia would pull Georgia so much into a major crisis that it would be Russia compelled to avoid involvement that could spin out of control.  The neo-conservatives and Georgians may have figured that bundling the two actions would be the only way to succeed at either.

That would also explain why Georgia’s President seemed so upset by the lack of US support.  If he felt this was a kind of joint venture, then he may have thought the US would do more, either covertly or directly, to thwart Russia’s response.  Now the situation is volatile.  Russian aid is flowing into South Ossetia and Abkhazia at a rapid pace.  Russia has recognized the two provinces as independent states, and is negotiating with the self-styled leaders of each “country.”  The US meanwhile brings aid to Georgia with military vessels, something President Medvedev calls ‘a provocation,’ comparing it to a hypothetical case where Russia would use military ships to deliver hurricaine relief to the Carribean.

Russian media, while mocking Shakashvili relentlessly (and sometimes quite humorously), is convinced this was a ploy to elect John McCain President, to take Americans’ minds off the economy.  They are also strutting happily about America’s impotence to do much about the situation.  The American media, while at times becoming a bit critical of Georgia’s actions, remains firmly possessed by the Bush Administration’s narrative of ‘big bad Russia.’  The Europeans, on the other hand, are more nuanced.  They recognize that there is injustice in simply allowing Georgia to forcibly control provinces that do not want to be part of Georgia — self-determination can trump pre-existing lines on a map.  Yet they dislike Russia’s response, much as they disliked America’s actions in Iraq.  Most, though, recognize that Georgia brought this on themselves by giving Russia an easy excuse to intervene.

So what next?  First, watch for miscalculations and miscommunication.  The Russians are being very clear that any punishment the West or the US threatens or doles out is irrelevant to their policy.  They are staking out their basic sphere of influence and making it clear they will not tolerate efforts to diminish it.   The US has to recognize that there is little it can do, besides talk a good game, against Russia’s desires for South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  The fact that is now painfully becoming clear to hawks is that in this era of globalization, with the US heavily in debt and dependent on outsiders for oil, and prevention of currency collapse (due to a huge current accounts deficit), our power is not what it was.  We don’t lead a global “West,” and our military strength has been over-estimated.  As Iraq and Afghanistan show, even in “easy” wars we have severe problems both with the mission and at home.

What needs to happen is that both sides should have clear communication and make sure some provocation or mistake does start a chain of escalations which each side thinks it can keep in touch.  Second, the US has to recognize the reality of Russia’s strength in its near abroad, and abandon the idea of expanding western style governments and influence into the former states of the Soviet Union.  Only the Baltic states will shift fundamentally westward, the others will have to recognize Russia’s interests and influence.  Finally, the US has to ditch efforts to cast this as some fight against a new Russian Empire, with idiotic slogans like “we’re all Georgians now” — I’m not, not even close!  We have to get rid of that Cold War mentality (and that probably means weaning out Cold War era foreign policy elites) and move towards recognition that in an era of globalization, posturing and ideological battles are pointless and bound to fail.  We share numerous common interests, both with western states, and with authoritarian states or those with other political cultures.  I believe ultimately the values of freedom and openness will be victorious, but not with one grand US push to try to make others like itself, but slowly, over time, and in a system of stability where it’s not seen as one “side” pushing its world view on others.

Right now the Bush Administration is stuck in Cold War mode (though with mixed signals, they are hard to read, and I suspect there are internal battles going on in the Administration), McCain is completely off course, and Obama and Biden seem to fear breaking with the past Cold War mentality (Biden is a product of that era, Obama should know better — but may fear looking too inexperienced if he directly challenges that old, obsolete mentality during the campaign.)  This can be an opportunity for a change in directions, and a re-construction of a European-Russian-American partnership, albeit one less focused on ‘bringing Russia to the West,’ and instead ‘looking out for mutual interests in a complex and dangerous era.’  The US may ultimately chart a course in this new direction only after much resistance; NATO and the EU may be the players who ultimately convince us that the days of heady unipolar power and alliance leadership are over.   The times, they are a-changing.

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