President Bush and his Russian â€œexpertâ€ Condi have played it completely wrong with Russia from the start. W. saw a â€œtrustworthyâ€ soul in a razor-eyed K.G.B. agent who has never been a good guy for a single hour. Now the Bush crowd, which can do nothing about it, is blustering about how Russian aggression â€œmust not go unanswered,â€ as Cheney put it. (W.â€™s other Russian expert, Bob Gates, was, as always, the only voice of realism, noting, â€œI donâ€™t see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation.â€)
The Bush administration may have a sentimental attachment to Georgia because it sent 2,000 troops to Iraq as part of the fig-leaf Coalition of the Willing, and because Poppy Bush and James Baker were close to Georgiaâ€™s first president, Eduard Shevardnadze.
But with this countryâ€™s military and moral force so depleted, the Bushies can hardly tell Russia to stop doing what they themselves did in Iraq: unilaterally invade a country against the will of the world to scare the bejesus out of some leaders in the region they didnâ€™t like.
W. and Condi are suddenly waking up to how vicious Vladimir is. In a press conference with Condi on Friday, Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, chided the West for enabling Russia to resume its repressive tactics.
â€œUnfortunately, today we are looking evil directly in the eye,â€ he said. â€œAnd today this evil is very strong, very nasty and very dangerous, for everybody, not only for us.â€
As Michael Specter, the New Yorker writer who has written extensively about Russia, observed: â€œThere was a brief five-year period when we could get away with treating Russia like Jamaica â€” thatâ€™s over. Now we have to deal with them like grown-ups who have more nuclear weapons than anybody except us.â€
One of the things I can’t figure out over Georgia’s conflict with Russia (actually it more like Georgia getting whupped by Russia) is what were they thinking? How many countries out there let alone a Putin led Russia would allow a country to try to sieze by force a territory that they have claimed for their own. Even us passive Canadians get upset when the equally passive Danes claim a piece of worthless rock off our Arctic coast or when the Spanish fish in our waters (I think it is hilarious that Wikipedia has a page on the Turbot War). Yet for some reason Georgia’s president thought he could run a couple thousand troops into South Ossetia and the Russian bear would only yawn?
[Saakashvili] came to power in a landslide victory in 2004 promising to bring back the rebel provinces. But as Russia has grown more oil rich and assertive, so Moscow’s diplomatic and practical support for the breakaway Georgian enclaves has grown—and the chances of Tbilisi ever recovering them has shrunk. Most citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been issued Russian passports and are eligible for Russian pensions; in April, the Russian Duma passed a law authorizing official ties with the rebel republics. At the same time, NATO caved in to Russian pressure and declined to give Georgia the clear invitation to membership it had sought. "The message Saakashvili got from that was: it’s now or never," says one senior Western diplomat in Moscow not authorized to speak on the record. "The assault [on Tskhinvali] was a gamble."
It’s a gamble that could backfire badly. Saakashvili may have made exactly the mistake Russia wanted him to make—giving Kremlin hawks the excuse to fill Ossetia with Russian tanks, bloody the Georgian Army’s nose and destroy his chances of re-election. Saakashvili’s appeals to the West for help are unlikely to elicit any practical response, other than diplomatic hand-wringing. There’s little doubt that tiny Georgia has little chance against the might of the refurbished Russian Army in an all-out war. So far, one of the brightest young leaders of the former Soviet space is set to destroy the other.
The problem is that when leaders make political gambles and go to war, the important numbers are not in the opinion polls, they get counted with body bags of the soldiers and civilians he was elected to serve.