Détente Part Deux

Break out the bell bottoms and ABBA EPs—the seventies are back, at least in diplomacy. America needs to look beyond the Georgian conflict and reassess its approach towards Moscow.

Once again summer has brought war to Europe. Russia's incursion into Georgia prompted immediate comparisons to Hitler's dismantling of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Brezhnev's suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring. But July 1914 might be a better historical analogy. However odious Russian conduct and however noble our intentions of supporting democracy in Georgia, we-the United States-played a role in a drama that leaves the world once again a far more dangerous place. We offered uncritical support to an appealing but reckless leader who hitched a local nationalist agenda to our worldwide promotion of democracy.

After Russia's calculated, brutal, and overwhelming reaction to President Saakashvili's attempt to assert Georgian control over South Ossetia, it seemed almost inevitable that U.S.-Russian relations would experience a chill not felt since the early 1980s. U.S.-Russian cooperation in important areas such as peaceful nuclear energy, anti-terrorism, drug interdiction, space exploration, and many other areas is already in jeopardy. Events seem to be rushing along a predetermined track toward confrontation.

What led to this mess? Even more important, what is our way out? One interpretation is Russia is reverting to expansionist Soviet-Russian imperial behavior. This explanation is particularly attractive for policymakers struggling to make sense of the post-cold war world, especially reverses in democratic governance and cooperation with Russia. It is comforting to see the crisis in Georgia and the larger failure of the post-cold war order as the result of a thousand years of Russian autocracy. That way we need not ask to what extent we contributed to this state of affairs.

The sad truth is we did not fully understand what we were getting into with Georgia and failed to define clearly the fundamental U.S. interests in the region. While Mikheil Saakashvili's professions of support for democratization and market reform charmed American interlocutors, he brought considerable nationalist baggage to his quest for European integration and NATO membership. Resurgent Georgian nationalism as the Soviet Union collapsed made it easy for Moscow to cast itself as the protector of the Abkhaz and Ossetians. Busy in the early 1990s with other crises, the United States actually encouraged Yeltsin to undertake mediation of these conflicts. Appeals by Tbilisi for greater U.S. and EU involvement were-until recently-overshadowed by higher priorities.

It is no surprise that Russia has its own agenda in Georgia, but Russia's ambitions go far beyond protection of the Abkhaz and Ossetian minorities. Commenting on the conflict on August 11, President Dmitri Medvedev noted "Russia has been a guarantor of security in the Caucasus region for centuries." The question now is what Russia's actions show about its aims, not just in Georgia and the Caucasus, but also the former Soviet republics, and Europe as a whole. What we know about events in Georgia, especially those crucial days in August 2008, does not give us clear answers. Whatever the provocations from Russia, there is no obscuring Georgia's strategic mistake in deciding to respond with military force. The hope of seizing South Ossetia in a quick stroke of force was a chimera; it was a tragic blunder to pursue it.

Contrary to Georgian charges, Russian forces did not drive to Tbilisi to replace the government. That may be Moscow's desire, but it seems Russian leaders may be clever enough to wait for Georgian politics to take care of that. Meanwhile there is now a long-term Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow's actions contain a message for her neighbors, in particular Ukraine, Moldova, and Azerbaijan: Russian power is back and Russia is not afraid to use it; the "near abroad" is an area of special Russian security interests; and NATO or EU expansion into Russia's backyard will be met by Moscow as a threat.

What does this all mean for the United States? Sadly, what the American government understood as support for democracy and reform, Saakashvili perceived as backing against Russia. Georgia was not in NATO, but was a U.S. ally. Saakashvili sent troops to Iraq to help the Americans. Surely America would help him if he needed it? The Bucharest NATO Summit only added to the impression that the United States would stick by Georgia no matter what. The August events leave Georgia shattered and disappointed, and U.S. credibility shaken.

So what are the possible courses of action for the United States? There are few good ones. Many Washington reactions focus on blaming Moscow for the crisis (all too easy to do), and finding ways to punish and isolate Russia. In these responses, patterns of behavior learned during the cold war seem dominant. But if this is not a new cold war (as experts are quick to assert, while they call for Russia to pay a price for its actions), then why should we be using the old cold war playbook?

There are some things the United States and its allies can do that might help:

Condemn specific Russian actions in Georgia, but restrain official U.S. rhetoric. The Russians already know we don't like what they did. The United States should focus on obtaining things we want, and should avoid complaints and threats we are not prepared to back up.

Democracy promotion in Georgia can and should continue, but should not be confused with reconquest of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If the latter is attempted, both will fail. The foremost task is to do everything possible to get Russian troops out of as much of Georgia as possible. Independence and sovereignty in some territory is better than no independence in any territory.