Talking Sense on South Ossetia

August 11, 2008

Talking Sense on South Ossetia

The United States bears much responsibility for the current crisis in Georgia. Now America needs to mend ties with Moscow but draw a line if the Kremlin tries to install a new regime in Tbilisi.

It is remarkable, but probably inevitable, that so many in Washington have reacted with surprise and outrage to Russia's response to President Mikheil Saakashvili's attempt to reestablish Georgian control over South Ossetia by force. Some of the angriest statements come from those inside and outside the Bush administration who contributed, I assume unwittingly, to making this crisis happen. And like post-WMD justifications for the invasion of Iraq, the people demanding the toughest action against Russia are focused on Russia's lack of democracy and heavy-handed conduct, particularly in its own neighborhood, and away from how the confrontation actually unfolded. Likewise, just as in the case of Saddam Hussein, these same people accuse anyone who points out that things are not exactly black and white, and that the U.S. government may have its own share of responsibility for the crisis, of siding with aggressive tyrants-in this case, in the Kremlin.

Yet many both outside and even inside the Bush administration predicted that the U.S. decision to champion Kosovo independence without Serbian consent would lead Moscow to become more assertive in establishing its presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Kremlin made abundantly clear that it would view Kosovo's independence without Serbian consent and a UN Security Council mandate as a precedent for the two Georgian de facto independent enclaves. Furthermore, while President Saakashvili was making obvious his ambition to reconquer Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow was both publicly and privately warning that Georgia's use of force to reestablish control of the two regions would meet a tough Russian reaction, including, if needed, air strikes against Georgia proper.

So it would be interesting to know what President Saakashvili was thinking when, on Thursday night, after days of relatively low-level shelling around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali (which both South Ossetians and Georgians blamed on each other), and literally hours after he announced on state-controlled TV the cessation of hostilities, he ordered a full-scale assault on Tskhinvali. And mind you, the assault could only succeed if the Georgian units went right through the battalion of Russian troops serving as international peacekeepers according to agreements signed by Tbilisi itself in the 1990s. Under the circumstances, the Russian forces had three choices: to surrender, to run away, or to fight. And fight they did-particularly because many of the Russian soldiers were in fact South Ossetians with families and friends in Tskhinvali under Georgian air, tank, and artillery attacks. Saakashvili was reckless to count on proceeding with a blitzkrieg in South Ossetia without a Russian counterattack.

Now the Bush administration and outside commentators are appalled by Russia's disproportionate response. But proportionality is in the eye of the beholder. In July 2006, after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others-smaller losses than those inflicted on the Russian troops in Tskhinvali-the Israelis launched a massive bombardment of Lebanon, including Beirut, killing more than a thousand Lebanese, many of them civilians. When some in the UN Security Council sought to condemn Israel's "disproportionate response," the United States acted as Israel's staunchest defender and prevented any resolution critical of Israel.

Notwithstanding this background, the United States has no good choices in dealing with the crisis. There is no realistic way to remove Russian forces from Abkhazia and South Ossetia short of a major war with Russia, which no responsible American political leader would advocate at this point. But whatever Saakashvili's responsibility is for the confrontation, America cannot allow an ally to be soundly defeated or especially overthrown by an insurgent Russia. Accordingly, the first priority for the United States should be to make abundantly clear to Moscow that any attempt at forceful regime change in Georgia will have severe consequences for the U.S.-Russian relationship and that the United States would help Georgia to resist on the ground.

Though the U.S. will not send troops-and Moscow knows it-we can provide significant military assistance to Tbilisi and greatly complicate a Russian military advance. Bringing Georgian troops back to their country from Iraq is one step on this path. While the Georgian army is no match for the much larger Russian forces, it is potent after years of double-digit budget increases and American equipment and training. Also, unlike in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where most of the population is friendly to the Russians, any Russian attempts to occupy Georgia would likely encounter massive popular resistance.

Moscow disavows any plan to conquer Georgia, and the Bush administration should hold them to their word, both through diplomacy to the extent possible, and a display of resolve if necessary. When this has been accomplished, however, we should look for ways to work with Russia in the name of essential American interests. We should also disregard the hysterical diatribes of Saakashvili's American champions, who protest too much-perhaps because their irresponsible encouragement of the Georgian president was a contributing factor on the road to the war.


Dimitri K. Simes is the president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest.