Putin thumbs his nose at Bush

August 11, 2008  |  PAPERS & STUDIES

A USAF C-130 is loaded with humanitarian supplies for the Republic of Georgia at Ramstein AFB, Germany, on 14 August 2008.  Photo courtesy US Department of Defense.Note on photo: A USAF C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft is loaded with humanitarian supplies for the people of the Republic of Georgia at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, on 14 August 2008.  Photo courtesy US Department of defense.

Editor's note: To download this essay as a PDF, please click "PDF" at the upper right of this page.

Georgia is only a pesky midget blocking the way to Ukraine.  Russia’s ultimate and more important target is Ukraine, not Georgia.  This is why the Russian war against Georgia is of the utmost strategic significance.   

The Russian animus against Georgia is long-standing.  Russia has been engaged in a low-level war against Georgia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The late Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze contributed mightily to that dissolution and the Russians ever since have thirsted for revenge.  The subsequent American armed support for Shevardnadze enraged the Russians.  The US had trespassed into “Russia’s backyard” and since then has continued to exercise very shaky squatter’s rights in Georgia.

The long-running Russian-backed secessions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were only the most obvious attacks on Georgian sovereignty and independence.  The current Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s mistake of attempting to reintegrate South Ossetia into Georgia by armed invasion was an unbearable and demeaning brazen defiance of Russia’s provocation.  With the US preoccupied with its presidential electoral campaigns, fully engaged militarily and diplomatically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Bush visiting in China, Putin concluded that the timing was right to punish Georgia’s contemptuous defiance.  Given this opportunity, the Russians will not cease their attack into Georgia until the democratically elected President Saakashvili and his government are deposed and Georgia, for all practical purposes, is reintegrated into Russia.

The strategic stakes of this Russian war are great.  The Russian aggression against Georgia is a carefully calculated strategic move to block NATO from expanding further and to keep the Caucasus and – most importantly – Ukraine firmly and forever in the Soviet imperial sphere of influence, excluded from Europe and impenetrable to the US.  The Russians know that, without Ukraine, there can be no resuscitated Russian empire.  By the invasion of Georgia, the Russians have just told the US and Europe that they will reintegrate Ukraine into imperial Russia when it suits them and the West can do nothing about it.  If the Russians take hold of Ukraine, under whatever guise, the strategic position of Europe and the US in Europe vis-à-vis Russia will fundamentally weaken. 

Furthermore, the Russian choice of targets in the bombardment of Georgia indicates that the Russians are after such large, long-range stakes.  The bombing of the Poti oil pipeline terminus not only slashes a large source of Georgia’s income, it terminates Europe’s main interest in Georgia.  The denial of a supplementary, if not alternative, source of gas and oil for Europe eliminates Georgia from the European security sphere.  It also completely opens Europe, and therefore NATO, to political extortion by Russia. 

This too has great potential strategic significance.  Because of NATO, the US has been the paramount European power.  If NATO is paralyzed by its European members’ craven fear in the face of Russian economic blackmail, NATO will simply become an irrelevance, useless to the US for its principal purpose.  Russia in effect will have eliminated the US from the Continent and replaced it as the leading European power. 

For too long the US has neglected a primary source of its power: its position in Europe vis-a-vis Russia.  The US has been obsessed with historically secondary national interests while ignoring this primary one.  In the face of obvious and persistent Russian rejection of, and indeed active opposition to, Western political objectives and values in dispute after dispute with other countries, the US has pursued an illusory strategic partnership with Russia.  The US also has subordinated its national interests to European (mainly German) fear and fecklessness in NATO by agreeing to postpone Georgian and Ukrainian membership in the alliance.  Ukraine, notwithstanding European and US implied promises, is now exposed to Russian intervention.

This absence of strategic sophistication is unworthy of and inadequate to a superpower.  The State Department and the Intelligence Community apparently were asleep at the wheel.  US diplomacy was absent in the prevention of, and US intelligence gave no warning of, the Russian invasion of Georgia.  These failures were evident on President Bush’s face when Putin told him, by the way, of the invasion.  At the Olympics, Putin thumbed his nose at the US.  Russia won this event and the gold medal. 

--------------------