Many friends have been asking me my take on Russia and Georgia, and I’ve been meaning to write something about the conflict in Georgia as a way to reanimate this dormant blog. I’m a little rusty here, so please forgive the dry prose.
I just watched Obama’s convention speech, and was reading reactions on the web when I saw this little nugget on the BBC: Vladimir Putin accused the US of provoking the conflict in Georgia to benefit McCain’s candidacy. This crystallized for me what I’ve been thinking, sure Russia invaded Georgia because of the precedents and opportunities set by Kosovo and Iraq, but really they invaded because of the threat of an Obama Presidency.
Russia held war games in July to plan its invasion, and was able to do so under the cover of American war games in Georgia. While the world thought it was a political show to respond to the American presence, it allowed Russia to run a dress rehearsal on its operation. It seems pretty clear that Georgia was first to move tanks into South Ossetia, but it also seems clear that Russia goaded them in. Tensions escalated throughout the spring and summer, including documented instances of Russia shooting down Georgian aircraft,
and reached a boiling point when South Ossetian paramilitaries stepped up a campaign shelling locations inside Georgia. The FT has a very tidy little timeline here.
Russia isn’t quite licking all the icing off its chops, but it accomplished what it set out to do, and at remarkably little cost. They knew it would be a cake-walk because the US has been so severely weakened and overstretched by the foolish invasion of Iraq—certainly physically, but also morally. Just as Bush is reviled here at home, the US is reviled abroad, so even if it wanted to the US could not mount a credible campaign to rein in Russia. In the current climate, it is breathtaking to think that the Georgian authorities actually thought the US would rally to their side. Sure, there is a lot of bluster and chest-thumping about Russia’s need to live up to its “international commitments,” and even lack-luster attempts by pundits to paint the Europeans as weak in responding to the crisis. “If only those weak-kneed Europeans would stand by us we could roll back Russian aggression. This bad joke was put to rest by this week’s spectacle of US warships sailing to Poti, the Georgian port patrolled by Russian troops, and then turning tail and running to Batumi as soon as Russian warships were sent in their direction.
The fact of the matter is that Russia has been announcing their right to unilateral action since the US invaded Iraq, and their specific intentions for Georgia ever since Kosovo gained independence (not to mention payback for placing a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.) Russia received the green-light to invade when it strong-armed Nato into denying Georgia and Ukraine membership in the alliance, but Russia’s hawks gained a sense of urgency when Obama visited Europe and was met by throngs of adoring fans. An Obama Presidency raised the specter of a renewed moral authority, one that could effectively rally the world to contain Russia’s interests, meaning that Russia needed to take action and solidify its gains prior to US elections in November. Overeager Georgians were only happy to comply.
It was surely coincidence, but a great gift to the McCain campaign to be able to take a strong rhetorical stance on Georgia against the backdrop of Obama in his swimming trunks on vacation. McCain was all bluster—the US is militarily unable to confront Russia at the moment, and the US public would not mobilize for a massive war in defense of a small nation—but it played well and allowed him to look strong and determined in front of a camera.
Say what they may, the US and its major Nato allies are all breathing a deep sigh of relief that Georgia was not allowed into the alliance. Not because this would have meant automatic defense of Georgia, but because this would have meant the end of the alliance. Neither the US, nor any country in Europe would have risked a nuclear war to defend Georgia’s claims to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia does not feel that it has the conventional capability to confront the US in open war, and so has adopted a doctrine of immediate and even pre-emptive nuclear retaliation for any confrontation with the US or Nato allies. As it stands, Western European public opinion is not in favor of confronting or even isolating Russia over Georgia, and this in great part can be laid at the doorstep of the US. The US has destroyed the international order under W., something immediately apparent to people around the globe.
The US is a funny thing—a democratic empire full of contradictions, and the election of Barack Obama on a platform of appealing to the better angels of our nature would show that the “promise” of the US is true, while rallying the globe to restore the international order. Obama is already wildly popular around the globe, and his election would transfer that popularity to the nation as a whole and restore the moral authority of the US to a level it probably hasn’t experienced since the Berlin airlift.
That’s the context of Putin’s statement. No nation likes foreign interference in their domestic affairs, and Putin gave a very subtle endorsement to Obama in an effort to elevate McCain. A McCain presidency would mean increased power and prestige for Russia, while the promise of an Obama presidency poses a threat to Russia and authoritarian regimes around the world. Including this one.