Georgia: Background to War

Perhaps the most ironic statement yet in the war of words over Russia's military intervention in Georgia was John McCain's assertion that "I'm interested in good relations between the United States and Russia, but in the 21st century, nations don't invade other nations." Too bad no one told the Bush administration that before it went into Iraq.

With the situation changing by the hour, it's hard to give an up-to-date analysis of the war in Georgia. But it is possible to talk a bit about the roots of the conflict, and what might be done going forward.

As Michael Dobbs has noted in the Washington Post, the conflict is best seen "against the background of the complicated ethnic politics of the Caucasus, a part of the world where historical grudges run deep, and the oppressed can become the oppressor in the blink of an eye." The war started when Georgia invaded South Ossetia, a semi-autonomous region that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has promised to bring back under full Georgian control. The Russian response has been disproportionate, to put it mildly, but Moscow didn't fire the first shots. Georgia is sort of an "empire within an empire," trying to consolidate control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia against their will, even as the Putin/Mededev regime in Russia tries to weaken Georgia in hopes of forcing it to dump Saakashvili and install a pro-Russian leader.

Then there's the broader context. The United States has been arming and training Georgia's armed forces throughout the Bush years under the guise of fighting terrorism, but it's fair to say that a stronger motive may be the fact that the critical Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline -- an outlet for oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that bypasses Russian territory -- runs smack through Georgian territory.

U.S. military ties to countries on or near Russia's borders have caused alarm in Moscow -- much as it would in Washington if Russia was arming Canada and Mexico. Provocative acts by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War have included the expansion of NATO up to Russia's western borders; the creation of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other former Soviet Republics along Russia's southern flank; U.S. support for Kosovo's independence over Moscow's objections; and the current plans to station a U.S. missile defense system in Central Europe. The Bush administration's push to add Georgia and the Ukraine to NATO as well would leave a situation in which U.S. military forces or U.S.-armed and trained forces were encircling Russia.

It should be noted that among the biggest boosters of Georgian membership in NATO are John McCain and his chief foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann, a leading player in the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq who was a paid lobbyist for the Saakashvili government as recently as last March.

These U.S. actions toward Russia don't justify Moscow's invasion of Georgia, but they are certainly contributing factors. And if Saakashvili didn't feel that he was the darling of Washington, he might not have been so quick to invade South Ossetia in the first place, and this war might not have happened.

As veteran defense correspondent Fred Kaplan of Slate has noted, the best thing the U.S. can do going forward is to build better relations with Russia by holding regular summits -- as was done during the Cold War -- and remove irritants to U.S.-Russian relations by pledging that Georgia will not be allowed to join NATO, and that the U.S. will not place missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. While neo-conservatives may shout "appeasement" and argue that Russia is being "rewarded" for invading Georgia, the alternatives are slim and none. Even Charles Krauthammer, a hawk among hawks, has written "Let's be real. There's nothing to be done militarily" in Georgia. His alternatives -- kicking Russia out of the G-8 group of industrial nations, boycotting the 2014 Olympics in Russia, and opposing Russian entry into the World Trade Organization -- are significant, but Moscow can handle them if it thinks the alternative is caving in to the West on issues that it views as central to its security. So, the alternative is diplomacy, not cranking up the rhetoric and starting a new Cold War (which, thankfully, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said the U.S. should not do).

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.

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