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Rushing to Judgment on Russia « The Washington Independent


President George W. Bush (WDCpix)

Russia has unquestionably responded with disproportionate force to Georgia’s attack on the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Moscow not only expelled Georgian troops from the contested region, it sent overwhelming military force into Georgia proper — effectively subjugating the country in a matter of days.

Washington’s condemnation of the Russian invasion is certainly warranted, but the Bush administration’s response has gone from appropriately firm to rashly confrontational. Defense Sec. Robert Gates said, “there is a real concern that Russia has turned the corner here and is headed back toward its past.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has proclaimed “in tatters” the hope that Russia had become a “responsible state, ready to integrate into international institutions.” The administration, backed by a chorus of pundits comparing Moscow’s actions to Soviet aggression during the Cold War, has jumped to the conclusion that the Russian bear is back.

But with the West in need of Russia’s cooperation on many different fronts –- energy, Iran’s nuclear program, the fight against Islamic extremism, to name a few -– Washington had better think twice before pronouncing a fundamental break with Moscow.

It could come to that. Should Russia keep its troops in Georgia and seek to turn the country into a satellite, then Washington may indeed be headed toward another era of militarized rivalry between Russia and the West. But we are not there yet. In the meantime, rushing to judgment and pronouncing a return of the Cold War risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Contrary to the dominant narrative of the conflict in the United States, Russian action does *not *constitute a naked act of aggression. Responsibility for the war falls heavily on the shoulders of both Georgia and Russia. The two parties have been baiting each other for years. Ever since South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a second contested region, broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s, these “frozen conflicts” have been a crisis waiting to happen.

Georgia, not Russia, initiated the clash. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent his forces into South Ossetia on Aug. 7. Russia then capitalized on Georgia’s move, responding in kind. To be sure, the scope of Russia’s invasion soon became inordinate. But it is disingenuous to argue, as Robert Kagan does, that “the details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important.” On the contrary, that Tbilisi first threw down the gauntlet makes a world of difference in assessing Russian intentions.

The U.S. narrative of the war portrays the conflict as a battle between an autocratic Goliath and a democratic David. The conflict is surely a mismatch — precisely why Georgian troops readily retreated. And Georgia is indeed further down the path of democratization than Russia.

But Saakashvili is no knight in shining armor. He has amassed excessive power and been irresponsible in his embrace of a blustery nationalism. When confronted with political demonstrations last November, he seized emergency powers, broke up the protests with tear gas and fire hoses and shut down the opposition’s main TV station. Freedom House, an independent think tank, ranks Georgia as “partly free” — the same ranking as Kuwait, Nigeria and Venezuela. Georgia does not deserve the free ride it is getting in the United States.

Russia has indeed tightened its hold on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It remains to be seen whether Moscow enters good-faith negotiations over their future status. But at least for now, Russia’s drive into Georgia proper appears to be aimed at creating a buffer zone around the two contested regions, not occupying or annexing territory in Georgia proper.

Russia has not sought to topple the government in Tbilisi. Nor has it seized or destroyed oil and gas pipelines, undercutting claims that one of Moscow’s main objectives in Georgia is to wrest control of the flow of Caspian oil and gas. Time will tell, but Russia’s war aims have thus far been limited — they are not in line with pronouncements that Russia is again an imperial aggressor bent on territorial expansion.

The Bush administration is right to express grave concern about Russian behavior in Georgia, but why has it rushed to the conclusion that a new Cold War is right around the corner?

Part of the problem is a Cold War hangover. Vice President Dick Cheney, Gates, Rice – all are ex-Cold Warriors. For them, attributing imperial intent to Russian behavior, and envisaging a world divided by East-West conflict, comes all too easily. The Cold War template was waiting on the shelf — it just needed dusting off.

The closeness of Georgia’s relations with the United States has also contributed to the elevated rhetoric. Saakashvili not only ingratiated himself with President George W. Bush and his top advisers, he built a broad network of supporters on both sides of the aisle. Moreover, Georgia has been a loyal partner of Washington — sending 2,000 troops to Iraq and staunchly supporting Bush’s freedom agenda. Hence, the chorus of voices that has come to Georgia’s defense and put exclusive blame for the conflict on Russia’s doorstep.

Finally, the neo-conservatives are again exercising outsized influence over U.S. policy and public debate. Long arguing that autocracies like Russia had to be contained, the neo-conservatives are seizing on this to advance their own agenda. In an election season in which foreign policy looms large, it can be treacherous to push back against the hard-liners. In this respect, Russia is playing right into the neo-conservative game plan.

The conflict in Georgia is far from over. Russian behavior should be condemned and threats of isolation maintained until Moscow withdraws its troops and heads to the negotiating table. Washington and its allies in Europe must remain on guard against the possibility that Russia has indeed returned to an imperial path.

But trumped-up talk of a newly divided Europe is both premature and dangerous. The West needs Russian cooperation on many fronts, and so has to have a strong reason to isolate Russia and, again, to man the barricades. Russia may provide this reason.

But the jury is still out in Georgia.

Charles A. Kupchan is professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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