Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s order to attack South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, was a breathtakingly audacious challenge to Russia, to which she was bound to respond forcefully. That response was promptly exploited by the American mainstream media machine and the foreign-policy community in Washington to paint Russia as a rogue power that is not only dangerous but intrinsically malignant. The vehemence of that rhetoric exceeds anything ever said or written about jihad, before or after September 11.
However, Russia’s response was too prompt and too devastating to suggest an improvisation under the pressure of unexpected circumstances. Moscow seems to have acted in line with a plan to maneuver Washington into a position of geopolitical weakness unseen since the final days of the Carter presidency almost three decades ago.
The intent behind Georgia’s attack was apparent in the name its general staff gave to the operation—“Clean Field”—and in the “shock-and-awe” assault on Tskhinvali.
Saakashvili was led to believe that he was tacitly authorized to act as he did. President George W. Bush has treated Georgia as a strategic partner ever since the Western-engineered “Rose Revolution” that brought Saakashvili to power five years ago, and last spring he strongly advocated NATO membership for Georgia. The United States and her allies (notably Israel and the Czech Republic) have armed Georgia for years, and over a hundred U.S. military advisors were actively involved at all levels of training and equipping the Georgian army. The Bush administration has repeatedly supported Georgia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” which implies the right to use force to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia to heel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s high-profile visit to Saakashvili in Tbilisi on July 9-10 calls to mind April Glaspie’s famous encounter with Saddam Hussein shortly before his invasion of Kuwait. Five days later, U.S. forces held a joint military exercise with the Georgian army, with more than 1,000 American troops participating.
Saakashvili may be forgiven for imagining that the United States would bail him out if things went badly. It is noteworthy that he was not disabused of such notions, Miss Rice’s feeble claims to the contrary notwithstanding. The calculus in Washington appears to have been based on a win-win scenario.
Had Georgian troops occupied South Ossetia in a blitzkrieg operation modeled after Croatia’s “Operation Storm” while the Russians remained hesitant or ineffective, Moscow would have suffered a major strategic and (more importantly) psychological defeat after almost four years of sustained strategic recovery following the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004. If Russia intervened, however, she would be duly demonized, and the United States would continue to block her entry into the WTO, seek to suspend her G-8 membership, accelerate the deployment of missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, and push for NATO expansion with new vigor. “Old” Europeans—the Germans especially—would be pressed to abandon their détente with Moscow. A resentful Georgia would become chronically anti-Russian, regardless of Saakashvili’s future, thus ensuring a long-term American presence in the region.
At the time of this writing, a month after the crisis, the score appears to favor Moscow.
The Georgian army performed so poorly that a military fait accompli on day one was out of reach. It failed to secure the southern approaches to the Roki tunnel under the Caucasus mountains, the only land route from Russia into South Ossetia capable of handling significant military traffic. Excesses against Ossetian civilians made the “innocent victim of aggression” narrative hard to sell.
The response came swiftly, including Moscow’s formal recognition of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia on August 26, indicating that the tandem Medvedev-Putin acts smoothly in setting political objectives and achieving them militarily. Moscow stopped short of effecting a “regime change” in Tbilisi while demonstrating its ability to do so, thus creating room for third-party diplomatic initiatives. The Europeans promptly bypassed Washington, brokering a truce that was pleasing to Moscow. NATO’s expansion along the Black Sea is stalled, with no major Old European power willing to risk any further complications with Russia.
Kosovo did establish a precedent, after all, one that Moscow is exploiting to its advantage while making Washington sound hypocritical when invoking international law and respect for the territorial integrity of states.
The outcome of the crisis in Georgia is a blessing in disguise for those of us who believe that America should not be “engaged” in each and every hot spot around the world. It offers further evidence that the American interest demands a sane relationship with Moscow that acknowledges that Russia has legitimate interests in her own backyard. Once those interests are recognized in Washington, the world will be a safer place. That neither likely new occupant of the White House accepts that simple fact bodes ill for global stability, in general, and for the “War on Terror,” in particular, for many years to come.