Today America’s media continues its love affair with a political star who has already faded from the stage, and fills out the balance of its airtime with stories from the Olympics in Beijing. But behind this classic display of media distraction, a new, colder and more threatening world is being born. A resurgent Russia flexes its military might over a former vassal state, now independent and aligned with the United States. Georgia is Russia’s whipping boy. Georgia has been Vladimir Putin’s favorite target for some time now, it was an obvious choice. Georgians have been assertive in their hostility to Russian hegemony and acerbic in their comments about Putin personally.
Four and a half years after the Rose Revolution, the Georgians have constructed what may be the most vibrant democracy on former Soviet soil. Their economy has been modestly but surprisingly successful. They have steered a sharp Westward course, pushing for NATO membership and aligning themselves with America even in its more unpopular undertakings, such as the war in Iraq. For Georgians, the choice was simple. America stood for the ideals of an open society and a free market. It offered the promise of transformation. And America was the paramount military power on earth, a power they could depend upon. But Georgia’s confidence in America, and specifically the Bush Administration, may well prove tragically misplaced.
In 2000, I visited the central Georgian city of Gori, now under assault by a column of Russian tanks and being subjected to Russian aerial bombardment. Through much of its history, Georgia was divided between two kingdoms, one on the Black Sea and the other in the interior. Gori stood at their joining point, the nation’s historic heart. I went to Gori with my young friend, the Georgian minister of justice, and on the drive out from Tbilisi, we discussed his understanding of the challenges faced by his country. Russia, in his view, presented some positive examples and some threats. He was impressed with the effort of a new Russian government to wrestle the country back from the oligarchs, to stabilize the tax revenue, restore central control over the provinces seeking autonomy, and to put the Russian government back on its feet. But he was suspicious about the new Russian leader’s commitment to democracy and his pursuit of jingoistic policies to whip up public support. My young friend, Misha Saakashvili, is now the besieged president of Georgia, and the new Russian leader we were discussing was Vladimir Putin.
After riding the Rose Revolution to power, Saakashvili adopted a set of strategies that reflected a careful study of Putin’s first thousand days. Oligarchs were put under the microscope, forced to pay taxes, and had their wings clipped. The nation’s empty treasury was slowly filled. The door was opened for entrepreneurship, and foreign investment began to flow into the country. Saakashvili also adopted a firm hand with respect to the petty enclaves that did a dance around the authority of the central government, acting quickly to reincorporate Adjaria. But there are important differences between Saakashvili and Putin, and they can be reduced to this: Misha is committed to democracy and an open society; Putin, betraying his KGB roots, never has been.
Last summer, I gave a speech in Tbilisi looking into the near-term future. What would come of relations between the United States and Russia? I predicted a cold snap. The United States and the Europeans would support the aspirations of Kosovo for independence, and Russia would retaliate. Georgia would be the immediate target, and the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be the vehicle. If the Americans could wrest Kosovo from Serbia, so reasoned Putin’s advisors, then we can take the Georgian enclaves from Tbilisi. Over the last half year, Moscow has carefully mustered a large military force in the North Caucasus, waiting for the right moment to strike. This week, as the world’s attention came to focus on Beijing, and the Government in Tbilisi–in a costly miscalculation–sought to reassert its control over South Ossetia–Putin saw his moment.
When I spoke in Tbilisi last summer, a perplexed young Georgian came up and asked me, “But what about NATO? With America’s support, Georgia will become a member of NATO. Won’t that make a difference?” The Bush Administration was then pushing the idea of NATO membership for the Georgians and its support gave them a good deal of confidence. But I explained why it wouldn’t happen. The NATO membership issue would be decided by the NATO members as a whole, and at present American prestige and support within its most important alliance system was at a historic low point. U.S. support for Georgian membership would count for very little.
The Georgian leadership, and indeed a whole generation of Georgians, tethered their hopes to George W. Bush and the hollow promises of his administration. Now at the moment of truth, Bush will almost certainly let them down. He has overextended America’s military presence around the world, whittling down America’s uniformed professional military just as he has undertaken two simultaneous wars. The Pentagon is telling Bush that he has stretched the nation’s fighting force perilously close to the breaking point. A conflict involving a major military power, like Russia, is beyond the realm of contemplation. Vice President Cheney, whose bellicose rhetoric has done much to provoke the problems now bubbling in the Caucasus, says that the Russian acts of aggression in Georgia “must not go unanswered.” But thanks to the serial strategic misadventures that make up Bush-Cheney foreign policy, there is little prospect of Russia’s actions being answered by a flex of military muscle of the United States or of NATO. Putin’s calculation is that an America bogged down in two conflicts in the Middle East will let him give the Georgians a whipping. Putin is probably right.
The world now enters a new phase. Russia has reasserted itself as a military power which will not tolerate backtalk and independence on the territory of its old imperium. The foreign policy and national security calculus of the United States and of Europe have just gotten much more complicated. Enjoy the Olympics.