If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams.
Let’s start with us. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was among the group — led by George Kennan, the father of “containment” theory, Senator Sam Nunn and the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum — that argued against expanding NATO, at that time.
It seemed to us that since we had finally brought down Soviet communism and seen the birth of democracy in Russia the most important thing to do was to help Russian democracy take root and integrate Russia into Europe. Wasn’t that why we fought the cold war — to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles? Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO?
All of this was especially true because, we argued, there was no big problem on the world stage that we could effectively address without Russia — particularly Iran or Iraq. Russia wasn’t about to reinvade Europe. And the Eastern Europeans would be integrated into the West via membership in the European Union.
No, said the Clinton foreign policy team, we’re going to cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats, because Moscow is weak and, by the way, they’ll get used to it. Message to Russians: We expect you to behave like Western democrats, but we’re going to treat you like you’re still the Soviet Union. The cold war is over for you, but not for us.
“The Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams acted on the basis of two false premises,” said Mandelbaum. “One was that Russia is innately aggressive and that the end of the cold war could not possibly change this, so we had to expand our military alliance up to its borders. Despite all the pious blather about using NATO to promote democracy, the belief in Russia’s eternal aggressiveness is the only basis on which NATO expansion ever made sense — especially when you consider that the Russians were told they could not join. The other premise was that Russia would always be too weak to endanger any new NATO members, so we would never have to commit troops to defend them. It would cost us nothing. They were wrong on both counts.”
The humiliation that NATO expansion bred in Russia was critical in fueling Putin’s rise after Boris Yeltsin moved on. And America’s addiction to oil helped push up energy prices to a level that gave Putin the power to act on that humiliation. This is crucial backdrop.
Nevertheless, today we must support all diplomatic efforts to roll back the Russian invasion of Georgia. Georgia is a nascent free-market democracy, and we can’t just watch it get crushed. But we also can’t refrain from noting that Saakashvili’s decision to push his troops into Tskhinvali, the heart of Georgia’s semiautonomous pro-Russian enclave of South Ossetia, gave Putin an easy excuse to exercise his iron fist.
As The Washington Post’s longtime Russia watcher Michael Dobbs noted: “On the night of Aug. 7 ..., Saakashvili ordered an artillery barrage against Tskhinvali and sent an armored column to occupy the town. He apparently hoped that Western support would protect Georgia from major Russian retaliation, even though Russian ‘peacekeepers’ were almost certainly killed or wounded in the Georgian assault. It was a huge miscalculation.”
And as The Economist magazine also wrote, “Saakashvili is an impetuous nationalist.” His thrust into South Ossetia “was foolish and possibly criminal. But unlike Putin, he has led his country in a broadly democratic direction, curbed corruption and presided over rapid economic growth that has not relied, as Russia’s mostly does, on high oil and gas prices.”
That is why the gold medal for brutishness goes to Putin. Yes, NATO expansion was foolish. Putin exploited it to choke Russian democracy. But now, petro-power-grabbing has gone to his head — whether it's invading Georgia, bullying Western financiers and oil companies working in Russia, or using Russia’s gas supplies to intimidate its neighbors.
If it persists, this behavior will push every Russian neighbor to seek protection from Moscow and will push the Europeans to redouble their efforts to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas. This won’t happen overnight, but in time it will stretch Russia’s defenses and lead it to become more isolated, more insecure and less wealthy.
For all these reasons, Russia would be wise to reconsider Putin’s Georgia gambit. If it does, we would be wise to reconsider where our NATO/Russia policy is taking us — and whether we really want to spend the 21st century containing Russia the same way we spent much of the 20th containing the Soviet Union.