The international condemnation of Russian aggression
against Georgia – and the concomitant assaults by Abkhazians and South Ossetians
against ethnic Georgians within their territories – is in large part appropriate.
But the self-righteous posturing coming out of Washington should be tempered
by a sober recognition of the ways in which the United States has contributed
to the crisis.
It has been nearly impossible to even broach this subject of the U.S. role.
Much of the mainstream media coverage and statements by American political leaders
of both major parties has in many respects resembled the anti-Russian hysterics
of the Cold War. It is striking how quickly forgotten is the fact that the U.S.-backed
Georgian military started the war when it brutally assaulted the South Ossetian
capital of Tskhinvali in an attempt to regain direct control of the autonomous
region. This attack prompted the disproportionate and illegitimate Russian military
response, which soon went beyond simply ousting invading Georgian forces from
South Ossetia to invading and occupying large segments of Georgia itself.
The South Ossetians themselves did much to provoke Georgia as well by shelling
villages populated by ethnic Georgians earlier this month. However, Georgian
President Mikheil Saakashvili ruled out signing a non-aggression pact and repeatedly
refused to rejoin talks of the Joint Control Commission to prevent an escalation
of the violence. Furthermore, according to Reuters,
a draft UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire was
blocked when the United States objected to "a phrase in the three-sentence draft
statement that would have required both sides 'to renounce the use of force.'"
Borders and Boundaries
In the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Russian
empire and its Soviet successors, like the Western European colonialists in
Africa, often drew state boundaries arbitrarily and, in some cases, not so arbitrarily
as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. The small and ethnically distinct regions
of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Adjara were incorporated into the Georgian Soviet
Socialist Republic and – on the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 – remained
as autonomous regions within the state of Georgia. Not one of the regions was
ethnically pure. They all included sizable ethnic Georgian minorities, among
others. Despite cultural and linguistic differences, there was not much in the
way of ethnic tension during most of the Soviet period, and inter-marriage was
As the USSR fell apart in the late 1980s, however, nationalist sentiments increased
dramatically throughout the Caucasus region in such ethnic enclaves as Chechnya
in Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, as well as among those within Georgia.
Compounding these nationalist and ethnic tensions was the rise of the ultra-nationalist
Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who assumed power when the country declared
independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. With the possible exception of the
Baltic states, Georgia had maintained the strongest sense of nationalism of
any of the former Soviet republics, tracing its national identity as far back
as the 4th century B.C. as one of most advanced states of its time. This resurgent
nationalism led the newly re-emerged independent Georgia to attempt to assert
its sovereignty over its autonomous regions by force.
A series of civil conflicts raged in Georgia in subsequent years, both between
competing political factions within Georgia itself as well as in South Ossetia
and Abkhazia, resulting in widespread ethnic cleansing. Backed by Russian forces,
these two regions achieved de facto independence while, within Georgia
proper, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze emerged as president
and brought some semblance of stability to the country, despite a weak economy
and widespread corruption.
Russian troops, nominally in a peacekeeping role but clearly aligned with nationalist
elements within the two ethnic enclaves, effectively prevented any subsequent
exercise of Georgian government authority over most of these territories. Meanwhile,
the United States became the biggest foreign backer of the Shevardnadze regime,
pouring in over $1 billion in aid during the decade of his corrupt and semi-authoritarian
The Rose Revolution
Though strongly supported by Washington, Shevardnadze
was less well-respected at home. For example, the New York Times reported
how "Georgians have a different perspective" than the generous pro-government
view from Washington, citing the observation in the Georgian daily newspaper
The Messenger that, "Despite the fact that he is adored in the West as
an 'architect of democracy' and credited with ending the Cold War, Georgians
cannot bear their president." Though critical of the rampant corruption and
rigged elections, the Bush administration stood by the Georgian regime, as they
had the post-Communist dictatorships in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,
and most of the other former Soviet republics.
Georgia enjoyed relatively more political freedom and civil society institutions
than most other post-Soviet states. Nevertheless, high unemployment, a breakdown
in the allocation of energy for heating and other needs, a deteriorating infrastructure,
widespread corruption, and inept governance led to growing dissatisfaction with
the government. By 2003, Shevardnadze had lost support from virtually every
social class, ethnic group, and geographical region of the country. Heavy losses
by his supporters in parliamentary elections early that November were widely
anticipated. Still, Shevardnadze continued to receive the strong support of
President George W. Bush due to his close personal relationship with high-ranking
administration officials. Contributing to this relationship were his pro-Western
policies, such as embarking upon ambitious free market reforms under the tutelage
of the International Monetary Fund, agreeing to deploy 300 Georgian troops to
Iraq following the U.S. invasion, and sending Georgian troops trained by U.S.
Special Forces to the Pankisi Gorge on the border of Chechnya to fight Chechen
rebels. Opposition leaders Zurab Zhvania and Mikheil Saakashvilli strongly criticized
the United States for its continued support of the Georgian president.
In addition to the electoral opposition, a decentralized student-led grassroots
movement known as Kmara emerged, calling for an end to corruption and more democratic
and accountable government as well as free and fair elections. Though not directly
supported by the Bush administration, a number of Western NGOs, including the
Open Society Institute (backed by Hungarian-American financier George Soros)
and the National Democratic Institute (supported, ironically, by U.S. congressional
funding) provided funding for election-monitoring and helped facilitate workshops
for both the young Kmara activists and mainstream opposition leaders. This led
to some serious tension between these non-governmental organizations and the
U.S. embassy in the Georgian capital.
For example, when U.S. ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles learned that some
leaders from the successful student-led nonviolent civil insurrection in Serbia
three years earlier were in Tbilisi to give trainings to Kmara activists there,
he tried to discourage them by telling them that “Shevardnadze is the guarantee
for the peace and stability of the region.” Noting that the United States was
providing training and equipment of the Georgian army that anti-government demonstrators
would soon be facing down in the streets, he referred to the Kmara as “troublemakers.”
Similarly, Miles discouraged Kmara leaders from working with the Serb activists,
whom he had known from his prior post as chief of mission in Belgrade, insisting
that “Georgia is not the same as Serbia.” (Despite these efforts, the scheduled
trainings in strategic nonviolent action went forward anyway.)
The parliamentary elections that November were marred by a series of irregularities.
These included widespread ballot-stuffing, multiple voting by government supporters,
late poll openings, missing ballots, and missing voter lists in opposition strongholds.
These attempts to steal the election elicited little more than finger-wagging
from the Bush administration.
The Georgians themselves did not take the situation so lightly, however. They
launched general strikes and massive street protests against what they saw as
illegitimate government authority. This effort was soon dubbed the "Rose Revolution."
Gaining support from the United States only after the success of the nonviolent
civil insurrection appeared inevitable, this popular uprising forced Shevardnadze
Presidential elections, certified as free and fair by international observers,
were held two months later, in which opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili emerged
victorious. Four months later, the authoritarian ruler of the autonomous region
of Adjara, a Shevardnadze ally, was ousted in a similar nonviolent civil insurrection.
Though not responsible for the change of government itself, the Bush administration
soon moved to take advantage of the change the Georgian people brought about
after the fact.
U.S. Embrace of Saakashvili
Despite its longstanding support for Shevardnadze,
the Bush administration quickly embraced Georgia's new president. Taking advantage
of Georgia's desperate economic situation, the United States successfully lobbied
for a series of additional free market reforms and other neoliberal economic
measures on the country, including a flat tax of 14 percent. Though official
corruption declined, tax collection rates improved, and the rate of economic
growth increased, high unemployment remained and social inequality grew.
With strong encouragement from Washington, Saakashvili's government reduced
domestic spending but dramatically increased military spending, with the armed
forces expanding to more than 45,000 personnel over the next four years, more
than 12,000 of whom were trained by the United States. Congress approved hundreds
of millions of dollars of military assistance to Georgia, a small country of
less than 5 million people. In addition, the United States successfully encouraged
Israel to send advisers and trainers to support the rapidly expanding Georgian
Although facing growing security concerns at home, the Bush administration
also successfully pushed Saakashvili to send an additional 1,700 troops to Iraq.
Thus, Georgia increased its troop strength in Iraq by more than 500 percent
even as other countries in the U.S.-led multinational force were pulling out.
Though Georgia is located in a region well within Russia's historic sphere
of influence and is more than 3,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Bush nevertheless
launched an ambitious campaign to bring Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO). The Russians, who had already seen previous U.S. assurances
to Gorbachev that NATO would not extend eastward ignored, found the prospects
of NATO expansion to the strategically important and volatile Caucasus region
particularly provocative. This inflamed Russian nationalists and Russian military
leaders and no doubt strengthened their resolve to maintain their military presence
in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Washington's embrace of Saakashvili, like its earlier embrace of Shevardnadze,
appears to have been based in large part on oil. The United States has helped
establish Georgia as a major energy transit corridor, building an oil pipeline
from the Caspian region known as the BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceylan) and a parallel
natural gas pipeline, both designed to avoid the more logical geographical routes
through Russia or Iran. The Russians, meanwhile, in an effort to maintain as
much control over the westbound oil from the region, have responded by pressuring
the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to sign exclusive
export agreements and to construct natural gas pipelines through Russia. (See
Michael Klare's "Russia and Georgia:
All About Oil.")
Amid accusations of widespread corruption and not adequately addressing the
country's growing poverty, Saakashvili himself faced widespread protests in
November 2007, to which he responded with severe repression, shutting down independent
media, detaining opposition leaders, and sending his security forces to assault
largely nonviolent demonstrators with tear gas, truncheons, rubber bullets,
water cannons, and sonic equipment. Human Rights Watch criticized the government
for using "excessive" force against protesters, and the International Crisis
Group warned of growing authoritarianism in the country. Despite this, Saakashvili
continued to receive strong support from Washington and still appeared to have
majority support within Georgia, winning a snap election in January by a solid
majority, which – despite some irregularities – was generally thought to be
free and fair.
Lead-up to the Current Crisis
A number of misguided U.S. policies appear to
have played an important role in encouraging Georgia to launch its Aug. 6 assault
on South Ossetia.
The first had to do with the U.S.-led militarization of Georgia, which likely
emboldened Saakashvili to try to resolve the conflict over South Ossetia by
military means. Just last month, the United States held a military exercise
in Georgia with more than 1,000 American troops while the Bush administration,
to the New York Times, was "loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia's
territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia's separatist enclaves."
As the situation was deteriorating last month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice made a high-profile visit to Saakashvili in Tbilisi, where she reiterated
the strong strategic relationship between the two countries.
Radio Liberty speculates
that Saakashvili "may have felt that his military, after several years of
U.S.-sponsored training and rearmament, was now capable of routing the Ossetian
separatists ('bandits,' in the official parlance) and neutralizing the Russian
peacekeepers." Furthermore, Saakashvili apparently hoped that the anticipated
Russian reaction would "immediately transform the conflict into a direct confrontation
between a democratic David and an autocratic Goliath, making sure the sympathy
of the Western world would be mobilized for Georgia."
to Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States
may have caused Saakashvili to "miscalculate" and "overreach" by making him
feel that "at the end of the day that the West would come to his assistance
if he got into trouble."
Another factor undoubtedly involved the U.S. push for Georgia to join NATO.
The efforts by some prominent Kremlin lawmakers for formal recognition of South
Ossetia and Abkhazia coincided with the escalated efforts for NATO's inclusion
of Georgia this spring, as well as an awareness that any potential Russian military
move against Georgia would need to come sooner rather than later.
And, as a number of us predicted
last March, Western support for the unilateral declaration of independence
by the autonomous Serbian region of Kosovo emboldened nationalist leaders in
the autonomous Georgian regions, along with their Russian supporters, to press
for the independence of these nations as well. Despite the pro-American sympathies
of many in that country, Georgians were notably alarmed by the quick and precedent-setting
U.S. recognition of Kosovo.
No Standing to Challenge Russian Aggression
Russia's massive and brutal military counter-offensive,
while immediately provoked by Georgia's attack on South Ossetia, had clearly
been planned well in advance. It also went well beyond defending the enclave
to illegally sending forces deep into Georgia itself and inflicting widespread
civilian casualties. It has had nothing to do with solidarity with an oppressed
people struggling for self-determination and everything to do with geopolitics
and the assertion of militaristic Russian nationalism.
While the international community has solid grounds to challenge Russian aggression,
however, the United States has lost virtually all moral standing to take a principled
For example, the brutally punitive and disproportionate response by the Russian
armed forces pales in comparison to that of Israel's 2006 attacks on Lebanon,
which were strongly defended not only by the Bush administration, but leading
Democrats in Congress, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee
Russia's use of large-scale militarily force to defend the autonomy of South
Ossetia by massively attacking Georgia has been significantly less destructive
than the U.S.-led NATO assault on Serbia to defend Kosovo's autonomy in 1999,
an action that received broad bipartisan American support.
And the Russian ground invasion of Georgia, while a clear violation of international
legal norms, is far less significant a breach of international law as the U.S.
invasion of Iraq in 2003, authorized by a large majority in Congress.
This doesn't mean that Russia's military offensive should not be rigorously
opposed. However, the U.S. contribution to this unfolding tragedy and the absence
of any moral authority to challenge it must not be ignored.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.