Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may be forgiven for claiming in her ABC interview that Russia‘s invasion of Georgia was “unprovoked.” The Republican vice-presidential nominee clearly had no personal views on the issue and was just repeating what she heard from Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign staff.
What is less explicable is that the perception that Russia attacked Georgia first remains common in the U.S. political mainstream, even as abundant evidence demonstrates the contrary.
The U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies, independent American and European media, and even quite a few informed Georgian sources make absolutely clear that as incredible as it may sound, tiny Georgia attacked huge Russia, not vice versa.
Reasonable people may debate to what extent Russia’s growing presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia or South Ossetian actions against Georgian troops provoked the Georgian offensive.
But by now, there is no doubt that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili ordered the assault on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 just hours after announcing a unilateral cease-fire and that Georgian forces used heavy artillery, tanks, and rockets against a battalion of Russian troops protecting the city.
The Russian battalion was legally a part of a peacekeeping brigade based in South Ossetia under an agreement signed by Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1992. The Russian force served together in that brigade with a Georgian battalion, at least until the Georgian battalion turned its weapons against the Russians.
It is understandable why many in the West have difficulty accepting these facts. Russia’s reputation is a big part of the problem. Russia’s “sovereign democracy” is more sovereign than democratic, its corruption is pervasive, and its legal system is too often open to official manipulation and even outright sale to the highest bidder. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev himself has acknowledged as much.
In foreign policy, Russia’s failure to denounce some of Josef Stalin’s aggressive actions, such as the incorporation of the Baltic states through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler’s Germany, further weakens Russia’s image. Moscow’s in-your-face petro-arrogance, while unsurprising after years of weakness and humiliation, sounds menacing, especially to Russia’s neighbors.
Despite this, it was the Saakashvili government that was the aggressor on Aug. 7, because the hotheaded Georgian president operated on the basis of two dangerous illusions.
First, as the accounts of some of his associates in Tbilisi suggest, he thought that with years of double-digit defense budget increases, U.S. training, and new weapons supplied or paid for by the United States, his military could launch a successful blitzkrieg in tiny South Ossetia and block the Roki tunnel, precluding a Russian counterattack and allowing Georgian forces to establish military control of the bulk of the territory at relative low cost.
This appears more than a little over-optimistic in retrospect; even if it had succeeded, Russia’s air force would have owned the skies over Georgia - with consequences already demonstrated.
Mr. Saakashvili’s second miscalculation was to ignore the Bush administration’s warnings not to use force on the assumption that, official messages notwithstanding, the United States would tacitly welcome his victory over Russia and would be prepared to protect him if things got tough.
Several years ago at a Nixon Center dinner in Mr. Saakashvili’s honor, I asked the Georgian president what he thought about a conversation years before, in 1991, between former President Richard Nixon and Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Mr. Nixon had gone to Tbilisi despite the strong displeasure of then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to support Georgia’s independence from the USSR. But Mr. Nixon was alarmed when Mr. Gamsakhurdia told him that not only was the Soviet Union dissolving, but Russia itself was weak, and it could be the right moment to deliver a devastating blow.
“Mr. President,” Mr. Nixon said, “there are two kinds of people in Washington you are going to encounter - those who will tell you what you want to hear and those who will tell you what you need to hear. And what you need to hear is that no matter what your friends and admirers in the United States may tell you, America is not going to go to war with Russia because of Georgia.”
Mr. Saakashvili, while visibly unhappy with my question, answered that he was no Gamsakhurdia, that he knew in which neighborhood Georgia was located, and that he understood the importance of having normal relations with Russia.
When the event came to an end, Mr. McCain, who chaired the dinner, thanked Mr. Saakashvili for his eloquent presentation and, clearly indirectly referring to my question, said that it was important for Georgia to be prudent but that it was also important for Georgia to know that it could count on American support in protecting its independence.
It was a sensible and balanced message, but I was concerned at the time that the Georgian leader would interpret it selectively and fail to appreciate the limits of U.S. support.
It is important and achievable to ensure the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Georgia proper. It is important and also achievable to bring European Union observers to monitor the cease-fire and to guarantee Georgia’s safety and its ability to make decisions without Russian interference.
But it would be a major mistake, in this show of solidarity, to give Mr. Saakashvili a renewed sense of impunity that could encourage him to act again on the temptation to conquer Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force. His regime could be destroyed in the process. Georgia could even lose its independence.
And, in addition to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and potentially Iran, the United States may have to open a new front against Russia or accept another and more far-reaching demonstration of Moscow’s power.
No responsible American president should want to face such a choice.
• Dimitri K. Simes is the founding president of the Nixon Center. He is also the publisher of In the National Interest and co-publisher of the National Interest. Mr. Simes was born in Moscow and graduated from the School of History of Moscow State University.