The U.S. policy of absorbing Georgia and Ukraine
into NATO, which was enthusiastically embraced by Barack Obama and his running
mate Joseph Biden, has undoubtedly been given a major boost by the Russian
military operation in Georgia.
In the new narrative of the Russia-Georgia war emerging from op-eds and cable
news commentaries, Georgia is portrayed as the innocent victim of Russian aggression
fighting for its independence.
However, the political background to that war raises the troubling question
of why the George W. Bush administration failed to heed warning signs that
its policy of NATO expansion right up to Russia's ethnically troubled border
with Georgia was both provocative to Russia and encouraging to a Georgian regime
known to be bent on using force to recapture the secessionist territories.
There were plenty of signals that Russia would not acquiesce in the alignment
of a militarily aggressive Georgia with a U.S.-dominated military alliance.
Then-Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of his view that this
represented a move by the United States to infringe on Russia's security in
the South Caucasus region. In February 2007, he asked rhetorically, "Against
whom is this expansion intended?"
Contrary to the portrayal of Russian policy as aimed at absorbing South Ossetia
and Abkhazia into Russia and regime change in Georgia, Moscow had signaled
right up to the eve of the NATO summit its readiness to reach a compromise
along the lines of Taiwan's status in U.S.-China relations: formal recognition
of the sovereignty over the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia
in return for freedom to develop extensive economic and political relations.
But it was conditioned on Georgia staying out of NATO.
That compromise was disdained by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. After
a March 19 speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Saakashvili was asked
whether Russia had offered a "Taiwan model" solution in return for
Georgia stay out of NATO. "We have heard many, many suggestions of this
sort," he said, but he insisted, "You cannot compromise on these
Russia, meanwhile, had made it clear that it would respond to a move toward
NATO membership for Georgia by moving toward official relations with the secessionist
U.S. policymakers had decided long before those developments that the NATO
expansion policy would include Georgia and Ukraine. They convinced themselves
that they weren't threatening Russia but only contributing to a new European
security order that was divorced from the old politics of spheres of interest.
But their view of NATO expansion appears to be marked by self-deception and
naiveté. The Bill Clinton administration had abandoned its original
notion that Russia would be a "partner" in post-Cold War European
security, and the NATO expansion policy had evolved into a de facto containment
Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO in the Clinton administration
and head of a three-year project for the State Department on reform of the
Georgian National Security Council, says the U.S. project of Georgia's membership
in NATO "had to be seen by any serious observer as trying to substitute
a Western sphere of influence for Russian" in that violence-prone border
region of the Caucasus.
Some officials "wanted to shore up democracy," said Hunter in an
interview, imagining that NATO was "a kind of glorified Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe" a negotiating and conflict-prevention
body to which the Russian Federation belongs.
But there were also some in the administration who "genuinely wanted
to contain the Russians by surrounding them," he added.
James J. Townsend, director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic
Council and formerly the Pentagon official in charge of European relations,
said there was enthusiastic support in both the Defense Department and the
State Department soon after Saakashvili took power in 2003 for integration
of Georgia into NATO "as quickly as possible."
Townsend believes the project to integrate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO gained
momentum in part because Washington "was underestimating just how sensitive
this is to Putin." U.S. policymakers, he said, had observed that in previous
rounds of enlargement, despite "a lot of bluff and bluster by the Russians,"
there was no Russian troop movement.
Furthermore, policymakers believed they were proving to the Russians that
NATO expansion is not a threat to Russian interests, according to Townsend.
They did become aware of Russia's growing assertiveness on the issue, Townsend
concedes, but policymakers thought they were simply "making trouble on
everything in order to have some leverage."
In the end, the bureaucracies pushing for NATO expansion were determined to
push it through despite Russian opposition. "I think it was a case of
wanting to get Georgia engaged before the window of opportunity closed,"
To do so they had to ignore the risk that the promise of membership in NATO
would only encourage Saakashvili, who had already vowed to "liberate"
the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, to become even more sanguine about
the use of force.
In the same March 19 speech in Washington, Saakashvili minimized the problem
of Russian military power in the region. He declared that the Russians "are
not capable of enforcing the Taiwan model in Georgia. Their army in the Caucasus
is not strong enough
to calm down the situation in their own territory.
I don't think they are ready for any kind of an adventure in somebody else's
territory. And hopefully they know it."
It was a clear hint that Saakashvili, newly encouraged by Bush's strong support
for NATO membership, believed he could face down the Russians.
At the NATO summit, Bush met resistance from Germany and other European allies,
who insisted it was "not the right time" to even begin putting Georgia
and Ukraine on the road to membership. But in order to spare embarrassment
to Bush, they offered a pledge that Georgia and Ukraine "will become NATO
Hunter believes that NATO commitment was an even more provocative signal to
Putin and Saakashvili than NATO approval of a "Membership Action Plan"
for Georgia would have been.
The Russians responded exactly as they said they would, taking steps toward
legal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Saakashvili soon began
making moves to prepare for a military assault on one or both regions.
In early July, Rice traveled to Tbilisi with the explicit intention of trying
to rein him in. In her July 10 press conference, she made it clear that Washington
was alarmed by his military moves.
"The violence needs to stop," said Rice. "And whoever is perpetrating
it and I've mentioned this to the president there should not be violence."
David L. Phillips, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told the Los
Angeles Times last week he believes that, despite State Department efforts
to restrain the Georgian president, "Saakashvili's buddies in the White
House and the Office of the Vice President kept egging him on."
But whether more specific encouragement took place or not, the deeper roots
of the crisis lay in bureaucratic self-deceit about the objective expanding
NATO up to the border of a highly suspicious and proud Russia in the context
of an old and volatile ethnic conflict.
(Inter Press Service)