Today at Georgetown University, Profs. Charles King and Charles Kupchan gave a talk entitled “Russia’s War with Georgia: Causes and Consequences“. The details and background they gave were extremely illuminating; their eagerness to give Russia the benefit of the doubt was decidedly less so.
King, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, spoke first. He introduced the idea of the war quickly becoming a “war of analogies”. Both sides tried to convince the world to view the conflict as analagous to a past one. Was this the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 again (the CSM article linked here is indicative of that sentiment) ? Was South Ossetia modern-day Sudetenland? Was Russia using its citizens (though not ethnic Russians) as a lever like Hitler used his in the 1930’s? King says that the Georgians were quite skilled at the use of public relations and in the use of pushing these narratives, and Saakashvili was plugged into major power players in the American foreign policy establishment.
The origins of the war are more complicated than these narratives portay them, says King. This is not the first time the Russians have intervened supporting secessionist movements since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the Georgia-Ossetia conflicts of ’91 and ’92, and in the Moldovan conflict in ’93, the ex-Soviet troops stationed in those regions found themselves in the middle of others’ civil wars and subsequently became involved. The secessionists won, especially in Georgia, it should be noted. The Ossetians created a de facto state with its own currency, army, and education system. This status quo was fine with Russia, King argues, and no one paid attention to these regions as long as no one was fighting.
The situation began to destabilize in the early 2000’s. Ossetian and Abkhazian stateness became more of a fact, and many locals became Russian citizens in order to obtain passports (they wouldn’t take Georgian ones) and the ability to travel.
More recently, the Rose Revolution that removed Eduard Shevardnadze brought in Mikheil Saakashvili, who moved the country in a pro-Western direction. American recognition of Kosovar independence made Russia believe that there was a change in policy regarding international recognition of ethnic secessionist movements. And, we must not forget, Russia itself gained confidence and swagger, largely fueled by their oil profits.
King believes that the position that Russia was motivated to initiate the conflict in order to send a message to America and Saakashvili is misleading. His reading is that Russia liked the status quo, whereas Georgia had experienced a rough patch. They were rebuffed at the NATO summit and were unhappy about the prospect of an Obama administration approach to Georgia.
Prof. Kupchan, of Georgetown and the Council for Foreign Relations, also puts more onus on Saakashvili. He attributes Saakashvili’s inflated sense of self to his close connection with American political leaders from both sides of the aisle. Kupchan says that Saakashvili’s best decision in the war was to surrender after five days, thereby preserving his regime and independence. Kupchan calls Russian behavior “reasonably restrained”, and sees no proof of any intention for conquest. They did not try to seize the pipeline, nor did they kill a huge numbe of civilians.
On the question of the implications for American policy, Kupchan argues that in America, the conflict was immediately seen as a return to rivalry with Russia. He wants the U.S. to contain the implications of the conflict to the Georgian situation only, and certainly not provoke the Russians by re-arming Georgia.
Neither professor thinks that Russia would have changed course if Georgia had been on track to become a member of NATO. They did not address, however, how Russia would have acted if Georgia was already a member of NATO. They were also extremely disdainful of the idea that we should treat a country differently with regard to foreign policy based on their internal regime (eg, democracy). King calls such an approach “Trostskyite”.
That comment does not surprise me, as the lecturers both took very practical, realpolitik views of the world, and did not allow for any moral or ethical considerations. The betterment of human condition in the world, and the opposition to aggressive autocrats does not factor in to their policy suggestions.
Even more troubling, absent solid evidence of Russian imperialist intention, they choose to give Russia the benefit of the doubt. They believe that the Bush Administration shares their view, which is why the actual steps taken were muted compared to the rhetoric. The equation should be flipped- the burden of proof should be on those who argue that Russia is restraining itself and wants to be cooperative. All the recent evidence, including Putin’s rollback of democratic principles within Russia, point to a need to be wary and suspicious of Russia.
The media did not do a professional job in reporting the conflict. Missing from the coverage was the immediate build-up, starting two weeks earlier. Russia had built up troop levels in North Ossetia in response to a NATO exercise in Georgia. Many of the troops they brought in were not frontline troops, and these second-line troops were the bulk of the troops who fought. This was not a good determinant of Russia’s ability to fight, only of their ability to deploy.
Moreover, King says that the media was simply wrong when they were reporting that it was not clear whether the Russians troops had truly pulled back after the cease-fire. Every Russian position was known to all observers, says King, the media was simply being lazy, or sensationalistic.