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August 25, 2008

Georgia War Rooted in US Self-Deceit on NATO

by Gareth Porter

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 issues…."

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 regions.

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 strategy.

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," said Townsend.

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 members."

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)


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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