A week after Georgia’s failed attempt to conquer the breakaway province of South Ossetia, the crisis is over. The only major issue still unresolved concerns Mikheil Saakashvili’s motivation. His order to attack on the night of August 7-8 was a breathtakingly risky move; but was it a calculated, or reckless gamble? That Saakashvili acted with the tacit approval (if not active encouragement) of the United States is reasonable to assume, considering the presence of over a hundred U.S. military advisors in Georgia. Actively involved at all levels of planning, training and equipping the Georgian army, they could not have not known what was coming. Had the Bush administration wanted to stop Saakashvili it could have done so.
It did not do so, however, because the foreign policy strategists in Washington—Russophobic to boot—assumed that they had a win-win situation:
- Had Georgian troops occupied Southern Ossetia in a Blitzkrieg operation modelled after Croatia’s “Operation Storm” that expelled a quarter-million Krajina Serbs in August 1995, 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.
- On the other hand, if Russia were to intervene the mainstream media machine would duly react with a campaign of demonization unseen since at least August 1968 (Prague), if not August 1961 (Berlin Wall). The U.S. would block Russia’s entry into the WTO, try to suspend her G-8 membership, and retroactively justify the deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. “Old” Europeans, above all Germans, would be forced to abandon their détente with Moscow. Last but not least, a bloodied, resentful Georgia would become chronically anti-Russian, regardless of Saakashvili’s personal fortunes, thus ensuring long-term “Western” (i.e. American) presence in the region.
In the event the plan did not work:
- The Georgian army performed so poorly in the field that a military fait accompli on Day One was out of the question. It could not even secure the Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, which lay virtually undefended within miles of the Georgian border.
- It promptly committed atrocities that made the innocent-victim-of-aggression narrative somewhat difficult to construct even for the likes of The Post or CNN.
- The Russian response came swiftly, indicating that the new tandem Medvedev-Putting acts in unison when setting political objectives and functions smoothly in achieving them.
- The military action was executed competently and achieved all its objectives within 48 hours, in sharp contrast with the protracted and bloodly stalemate in Chechnya a decade ago, let alone the Afghan quagmire in the 1980s.
- Moscow stopped short of taking the whole of Georgia and effecting a regime change in Tbilisi, while demonstrating its ability to do so—thus creating room for third-party diplomatic initiatives based on Russia’s position of overwhelming strength.
- The Europeans went out of their way to keep their dialogue with Moscow open, brokering a ceasefire pleasing to Moscow (Sarkozy) and maintaining the schedule of previously announced top-level contacts (Merkel).
- NATO’s expansion eastwards is now finally over: no major European member of the alliance, with the possible exception of the ever-pliant Britain, accepts Bush’s argument that vital Western interests are at stake in whose flag flies over Tskhinvali.
- Kosovo did establish a precedent, after all, the one that Mosow will exploit to its advantage while making Washington sound hypocritical when invoking “international law” and the respect for territorial integrity of states.
- Stretched to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States responded with Miss Rice’s forgettable platitudes in Tbilisi, thus implicitly admitting Washington’s inability to intervene along the Russian periphery.
Back to Saakashvili. If he acted in the hope of a decisive political and even military American response to Russia’s predictable reaction, he is naive. If he willingly accepted the role of collateral damage in the scenario of discrediting Russia, he is stupid. And if he thought that he could do a Tudjman with impunity, he is insane.
The events in the Caucasus clearly indicate to small and weak countries that it is self-defeating to trust a distant mentor in Washington whose verbal commitments greatly exceede available resources. The outcome is a blessing in disguise for those of us who believe that America should not be “engaged” in each nook and cranny around the world, and who advocate a sane, give-and-take relationship with Moscow based on the acceptance that Russia has legitimate interests in her near-abroad.
I shall revisit these themes in detail next week, when I return home from the annual Grand European Tour.