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Georgia as a Measurement of Power Lost

The weak American response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia has not been lost on anyone, and one article even quoted a refugee fleeing the conflict zone toward safety as commenting “If Bush had said something stronger, the Russians wouldn’t have pushed on toward Gori.” The Georgian Olympic war is quickly becoming a measuring stick of Washington’s squandered international power after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and severely strained relations with allies. Bay Fang of the Chicago Tribune has a good news analysis worth reading taking a look at the lost leverage.

On the first day that Russia struck Georgian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, the Bush administration said it was working actively with its European partners to seek an end to hostilities. Four days later, as Russian forces swarmed virtually unopposed into Georgian territory on Monday, the U.S. response was the same: “We are working very hard with the Europeans to try to resolve the conflict,” said Robert Wood, the deputy State Department spokesman. Even as President George W. Bush vigorously condemned Russia’s actions, calling its military expansion into Georgian territory a “dramatic and brutal escalation” that is “unacceptable in the 21st Century,” there is not much the U.S. can do to protect its closest ally in the Caucasus.

American military support, while not officially off the table, is neither a realistic nor desirable option against a nuclear power such as Russia. The UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member, is not likely to produce a resolution with teeth on the fighting any time soon. Sanctions against Moscow also are not an option for many European countries because they import most of their energy from Russia.”We don’t have great leverage here,” said James Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “The Russians have said that the one thing they want is for the U.S. and the Europeans not to do things, such as bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Does that suggest options? I don’t know.”At stake could be not only the U.S. bilateral relationship with Russia, which already has been chilly, but the entire balance of power that many already believed to be shifting away from the U.S. over the last several years.Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “What there is to lose is … the stability of the framework that the U.S. thought was going to govern the post-Cold War world. When one country conquers another, that’s typically regarded as pretty serious, and the inability to do anything about it is something the United States is not all that accustomed to.”While the U.S. has lent military support to the Georgians in the past, mostly to help train its troops for deployment in Iraq, the only assistance it has given Tbilisi since the crisis began was to help fly some of those 2,000 troops back to Georgia.Even on the diplomatic front, the administration has not reacted with as much force as it has during other world crises, preferring to take a back seat to its European allies. Although the French, who hold the European Union presidency, and the Finns, who lead the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, both sent their foreign ministers to the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice preferred to send a special envoy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, in her stead—and then not until after a couple days of fighting.Her spokesman has offered a running count of the number of calls she has made to European and Russian officials—50 over the weekend, 90 by midday Monday—in an attempt to demonstrate her engagement on the issue.Instead, the U.S. has lent its support to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Finnish counterpart, Alexander Stubb, who are on their way to Moscow to present a proposal for a cease-fire and return to the military positions before the fighting began. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, will be arriving in Brussels just in time to attend an emergency meeting Tuesday.The hesitancy of the Bush administration to get more publicly involved in the mediation may be due in part to its close association with the Georgian regime of U.S.-educated Mikhail Saakashvili. Bush, who visited the country twice after Saakashvili swept to power in 2003 in the so-called Rose Revolution, called it a “beacon of liberty” in the region.And despite Bush and Putin’s past camaraderie, the fact that the Bush administration has a limited tenure also could reduce its influence with the Kremlin.”What they have to be thinking in Moscow is that the Bush administration is only around for another five months,” said Steven Pifer, a former American ambassador to Ukraine. “The dynamic might be different if it was the beginning of the new administration, and they were trying to shape a new relationship.”If the international coalition can get a cease-fire in place, the options may widen, depending on what it is that the Russians actually want from the invasion.Stephen Larrabee, a political scientist at RAND Corp., said, “Russia’s goal is not to occupy Georgia, but to assert its own interests in the region, and to humiliate, embarrass and eventually dislodge Saakashvili from power. Once it has humiliated him enough and made its point, then it would be ready to negotiate a diplomatic settlement.”But if Moscow were to attack the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and remain in the country, that is another story. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, a senior U.S. official drew ominous analogies to the Russian invasions of Afghanistan in 1979, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Georgia in 1922.