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Mixed Truth of the Russia-Georgia War

By Ivan Eland
August 21, 2008

Editor’s Note: Much of the mainstream U.S. news media, led by the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page, has reacted to the Russia-Georgia crisis more like knee-jerk Cold War propagandists than as objective observers.

Yet, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland points out in this guest essay, the lessons from the conflict are far more nuanced than Washington’s political/journalistic elites have acknowledged:

Despite significant U.S. and Georgian culpability in the crisis in Georgia, most U.S. politicians and media painted Russia as the diabolical “evildoer.”

As if the Russian military incursions into Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia — the latter two are autonomous regions of the former that do not want to be part of that country — happened out of the blue, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice implied that Russia was attempting to bring back the Cold War.

Because Georgia is a U.S. friend, however, U.S. politicians, in a huff, heaped blame on the resurgent Russian bear, forgot to mention that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili recklessly first invaded South Ossetia to try to reclaim one of the two regions, which both have had long-standing autonomy and populations who want it to stay that way.

He did this in part because the U.S. had helped build up his military, leading him to overestimate U.S. backing in any crisis.

Russia had given ample warnings to Saakashvili that if he attempted to grab such lands, he would meet resistance. In addition, the initial Georgian invasion killed Russian soldiers and apparently many civilians. The United States would never tolerate the killing of its military personnel in such a manner.

But despite their tough pre-election public posturing, some U.S. politicians acknowledge privately that the U.S. friend Saakashvili might be a loose cannon. That they take for granted that the United States should be reflexively supporting him anyway vis-à-vis Russia is troubling.

Why should the United States stand behind Saakashvili’s aggressive provocation of Russia — a country with thousands of nuclear warheads?
The answer is that contrary to Secretary Rice’s implication, Russia is not bringing back the Cold War. In fact, it never ended.

After the Soviet Union fell, the United States deliberately took advantage of a weakened Russia to incorporate its former allies and even some former Soviet republics into the NATO alliance. The U.S. even sought and won access to military bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

At the time, Russia could do nothing about this perceived hostile alliance moving right up to its current borders.

More recently, a stronger Russia — reacting to NATO’s flirtation with Ukraine and Georgia for eventual alliance membership and plans for installing U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic — tightened its relationship with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Another factor provoking this Russian reaction was the West’s recognition of Kosovo — the secessionist province of Serbia, which is a staunch Russian ally — as an independent state. If the U.S. supported self-determination, as enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, for Kosovo, then why not for Georgia’s breakaway regions?

Thus, the post-1991 “Cold War Lite” policy that the U.S. has adopted has made Russia feel surrounded, isolated, and threatened, as many opponents of NATO expansion predicted in the 1990s would eventually happen.

After all, the U.S. is in Russia’s face — that is, in its traditional sphere of influence — and not vice versa. The opponents also correctly predicted if Russia rose again — which they deemed a distinct possibility — the disgruntled bear would put its foot down. That just happened.

This crisis has dragged up larger questions, however. If the U.S. continues to pledge a costly defense of an ever-expanding list of NATO allies (currently at 25), at some point, one or more of these small, weak nations in Russia’s “near abroad” will embroil the U.S. needlessly in a Cold War-style confrontation with a nuclear-armed power.

In this case, if the rash Georgia had already become a NATO member, pressure would have mounted to send U.S. combat troops instead of humanitarian aid to that nation.

Ever more to the point, why is Georgia so important to the United States? The answer is that it is not.

Although Russia is unfortunately moving back to autocracy and Georgia is an imperfect democracy, Georgia is a small, weak country not even remotely close to the United States, its sphere of influence, or anything important to the United States.

Some would say that oil pipelines running from the Caspian Sea oil basin through Georgia to Turkey and the Mediterranean matter, but even this argument has been vastly overstated.

Caspian Sea oil accounts for only less than four percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. But even in the worst case, if Russia would get control of the Georgian portions of these pipelines — in addition to controlling its own pipelines carrying Caspian Sea oil — the Russian economy remains oil-based and in dire need of lucrative revenues from oil transport.

Thus, although the Russians might raise the price of transporting Caspian Sea oil through these pipelines, Russia would be unlikely to halt the long-term flow of the petroleum to the world market.

In short, U.S. friend Georgia is hardly on the unambiguous right side of this dispute, was recklessly aggressive (in part because of U.S. military aid and friendship), and is not strategic to the United States.

As bad as this crisis is, it could have been worse if Georgia had already been admitted to NATO. This crisis should be a wake-up call that admitting Georgia, Ukraine, or other non-strategic nations in the Russian sphere of influence into NATO could needlessly make Russia even more hostile and start a new, dangerous, and unnecessary Cold War.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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