Giving Russia the Benefit of the Doubt in the Georgia Crisis

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.

6 Responses to Giving Russia the Benefit of the Doubt in the Georgia Crisis

  1. Barry Meislin says:

    Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

    Might one replace “gods,” with “left-wing academics”?
    And replace “bastards” with “Anti-American thugs”?

    For a bit of context, Michael Totten filed this already on August 26.

    And even the MSM appears to have managed to catch on (by September 16)

    The disingenuousness (rot?) of academe continues apace.

  2. Ryan says:

    > Many of those troops were not frontline troops,
    > and these were the troops who fought. This was
    > not a good determinant of Russia’s ability to
    > fight, only of their ability to deploy.

    With the “those” and “these” I’m not clear to which troops of whom you’re referring. And does that mean that you believe that their ability to fight is most likely greater or lesser than what was demonstrated?


  3. EB says:

    Look, not that I am pro-Russian, but “the burden of proof should be on those who argue that Russia is restraining itself and wants to be cooperative”? I mean, Russia is finding itself in a position where a military alliance of which it is not a member, is being extended right up to its borders. How would US act in a similar situation? If Russia was in talks with both Mexico and Canada about forming a military alliance, re-arming them, and sending “advisors” to train their militaries? Would we be “restraining ourselves and wanting to be cooperative”? Remember Cuba if you want examples.

  4. lazar says:

    RR- The troops involved were largely not the best troops that Russia has. It is hard to say how they would fight in real test- certainly they have better trained troops, but the performance of the troops, command, and logistics under combat pressure is still a serious question mark. What we do know is that they can deploy large numbers of troops effectively, and that soldiers are not showing up drunk, as was the case in the ’90s. Their military stands around 700,000 troops, and Georgia’s around 30,000.

  5. igout says:

    I was delighted when Eastern Europe was liberated from the Russians; they had no business there. When the USSR itself fell apart I was less happy, being reminded of the collapse of the Austro Hungarian Empire in ’18 and the hell that unleashed. And if that’s what Putin had in mind when he spoke of the dissolution of the USSR as a geopolitical tragedy, then in time we all may have to agree with him.

    And speaking as a selfish American, I am heartily sick of that region of the world where Europe and Asia meet, and if Russia would put a firm and heavy boot down there, I’d be most grateful. We got along fine with a Russian Empire up to 1917.

    Lastly, it is possible that having recovered its various Alsace-Lorraines, Russia’s ambition lies in being a sort of giant Switzerland with nukes, but getting rich off oil and gas instead of banking. This would be a very sensible thing for the Russians to desire, in my opinion, and definitely not worth going to war to prevent.

  6. parallel says:


    The reason the NATO alliance (a defensive alliance) is being extended up to the borders of Russia is that Russia’s neighbours are afraid of it – with good reason. In Georgia’s case, Russia had already occupied some of its territory by force and was making steps to annex it. So Russia is not acting in good faith if they fear a NATO invasion. What might worry them is the fact that NATO might interfere with their expansionist and hegemonist policies.


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