Taunting the Bear
The hostilities between Russia and Georgia that erupted on Friday over the breakaway province of South Ossetia look, in retrospect, almost absurdly over-determined. For years, the Russians have claimed that Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been preparing to retake the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and have warned that they would use force to block such a bid. Mr. Saakashvili, for his part, describes today’s Russia as a belligerent power ruthlessly pressing at its borders, implacably hostile to democratic neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine. He has thrown in his lot with the West, and has campaigned ardently for membership in NATO. Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s former president and current prime minister, has said Russia could never accept a NATO presence in the Caucasus.
The border between Georgia and Russia, in short, has been the driest of tinder; the only question was where the fire would start.
It’s scarcely clear yet how things will stand between the two when the smoke clears. But it’s safe to say that while Russia has a massive advantage in firepower, Georgia, an open, free-market, more-or-less-democratic nation that sees itself as a distant outpost of Europe, enjoys a decisive rhetorical and political edge. In recent conversations there, President Saakashvili compared Georgia to Czechoslovakia in 1938, trusting the West to save it from a ravenous neighbor. “If Georgia fails,” he said to me darkly two months ago, “it will send a message to everyone that this path doesn’t work.”
During a 10-day visit to Georgia in June, I heard the 1938 analogy again and again, as well as another to 1921, when Bolshevik troops crushed Georgia’s thrilling, and brief, first experiment with liberal rule.
Georgians are a melodramatic people, and few more so than their hyperactive president; but they have good reason to fear the ambitions, and the wrath, of a rejuvenated Russia seeking to regain lost power. Indeed, a renascent and increasingly bellicose Russia is an ominous spectacle for the West too. While China preaches, and largely practices, the doctrine of “peaceful rise,” avoiding confrontation abroad in order to focus on development at home, Russia acts increasingly like an expansionist 19th-century power, pressing at its borders. Most strikingly, Russia has bluntly deployed its vast oil and gas resources to punish refractory neighbors like Ukraine, and reward compliant ones like Armenia.
A senior American official said that while the United States and Russia have common interests, Russia has become “a revisionist and aggressive power,” and the West “has to be prepared to push back.” But the Bush administration also recognizes that Russia has legitimate security interests, and that Mr. Saakashvili has played a dangerous game of baiting the Russian bear. Officials were laboring into the weekend — in vain, they feared — to coax both sides back to their corners. For much of the diplomatic and policy-making world, the border where Georgia faces Russia, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia between them, has become a new cold war frontier.
Georgia ardently aspires to join the peaceable kingdom of Europe; but to talk to Georgians about Russia is to enter a cold war time warp. I was speaking one evening to the owner of a fine antiques shop in Tbilisi when the conversation somehow swerved to Russia. “These Russians are so stupid,” he cried. “They do not know what is friend. They would rather have angry enemies than real friends.” Russia’s apparent hatred for Georgia provoked endless bewilderment, and no little bit of pride. I heard from three different people about a poll in which Georgia had just surged ahead of the United States as the country Russians identified as Enemy No. 1. Georgians insist that they are free of such zero-sum pathologies, though you might have thought otherwise if you had listened to the crowd in Betsy’s Hotel in Tbilisi during the Russia-Holland quarterfinal of the Euro Cup; suddenly the Dutch were everyone’s darling.
SUBMISSION AND REBELLION
The roots of this bitter relationship are deep and tangled, as is practically everything in the archaic world of the Caucasus. Modern Georgian history is a record of submission to superior Russian power. Threatened by the expanding Persian empire, in 1783 the Georgians formally accepted the protection of Russia; this polite fiction ended when Russia annexed Georgia in 1801. The chaos of the Russian Revolution finally gave Georgia a chance to restore its sovereignty a century later. The Georgians were Mensheviks — social democrats, in effect — and for three years enjoyed one of the world’s most progressive governments. The Bolshevik government signed a treaty respecting Georgia’s independence — which Europe, as President Saakashvili pointedly reminded me, naïvely insisted on taking at face value. By the time the Europeans woke up to reality, it was too late.
From the time of Pushkin, Russians viewed Georgia as a romantic, exotic frontier. During the long puritanical deep-freeze of Communism, Georgia served as Russia’s Italy — a warm, lotus-eating sanctuary of singers and poets and swashbuckling gangsters. The elite had their beloved dachas on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia. At the same time, Stalin, though himself Georgian, kept the republic subdued through brutal purges. The head of the Georgian Communist party was Lavrenti Beria, a cold-blooded killer who would become the master architect of Stalin’s terror. The Georgians, though helpless, never accepted their Soviet identity, and preserved their language, culture, religious practice and sense of national identity, as they had under the czars. And when, at last, the Soviet empire collapsed as the czarist one had, Georgia immediately broke away and declared its independence, in 1991.
The infant country spent the next decade stagnating under the Soviet-style rule of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister to Mikhail Gorbachev. But in 2003, Mr. Shevardnadze was peacefully overthrown in what came to be known as the Rose Revolution. Mr. Saakashvili was elected the following year. Since then, Georgia has become a poster child for Westernization. The growth rate has reached 12 percent. The countryside remains impoverished, but what the outside world sees of Georgia is delightful. Tbilisi is a charming city, its ancient Orthodox churches restored to life, the lanes of the old city lined with cafes and art galleries. Mr. Saakashvili has also made Georgia one of the world’s most — or few — pro-American countries. President Bush received a rapturous welcome when he visited in 2005, and the road to the airport has now been named after him, complete with a large poster of the president.
It was, of course, at this very moment that another ambitious young figure was reshaping Russia’s politics, economy and self-image. The combination of Vladimir Putin’s reforms and the dizzying rise in the price of oil and gas have rapidly restored Russia to the status of world power. And Mr. Putin has harnessed that power in the service of aggressive nationalism.
Marshall Goldman, a leading Russia scholar, argues in a recent book that Mr. Putin has established a “petrostate,” in which oil and gas are strategically deployed as punishments, rewards and threats. The author details the lengths to which Mr. Putin has gone to retain control over the delivery of natural gas from Central Asia to the West. A proposed alternative pipeline would skirt Russia and run through Georgia, as an oil pipeline now does. “If Georgia collapses in turmoil,” Mr. Goldman notes, “investors will not put up the money for a bypass pipeline.” And so, he concludes, Mr. Putin has done his best to destabilize the Saakashvili regime.
But economic considerations alone scarcely account for what appears to be an obsession with Georgia. The “color revolutions” that swept across Ukraine, the Balkans and the Caucasus in the first years of the new century plainly unnerved Mr. Putin, who has denounced America’s policy of “democracy promotion” and stifled foreign organizations seeking to promote human rights in Russia. Georgia, with its open embrace of the West, thus represents a threat to the legitimacy of Russia’s authoritarian model. And this challenge is immensely compounded by Georgia’s fervent aspiration to join NATO, . one of Russia’s red lines. Russian officials frequently recall that President Bill Clinton promised Boris Yeltsin that NATO would not expand beyond Eastern Europe. Of course NATO is no longer an anti-Soviet alliance, and the fact that Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its security is a vivid sign of the deep-rooted cold war mentality of Mr. Putin and his circle.
Still, they seem to mean it. Both Mr. Putin and his successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, have reserved their starkest rhetoric for this subject. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has threatened that Georgia’s ambition to join NATO “will lead to renewed bloodshed,” adding, as if that weren’t enough, “we will do anything not to allow Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.”
After Mr. Saakashvili, then 37, became president, Mr. Putin made no attempt to court him, and Mr. Saakashvili, made a point of showing the regional hegemon no deference. The open struggle began in late 2005 and early 2006, when Russia imposed an embargo on Georgia’s agricultural products, then on wine and mineral water — virtually Georgia’s entire export market. After Georgia very publicly and dramatically expelled Russian diplomats accused of espionage, Mr. Putin cut off all land, sea, air and rail links to Georgia, as well as postal service. And then, for good measure, he cut off natural gas supplies in the dead of winter.
ECHOES OF TRAGEDY
This new round of bellicosity struck Georgians as frighteningly familiar. Alexander Rondeli, the director of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, recited to me a thought he attributed to the diplomat-scholar George F. Kennan: “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Here, for him, was further proof, as if it were needed, that imperialist expansion and brute subjugation are coded in Russia’s DNA. The Georgian elite came to view Russia as an unappeasable power imbued with the paranoia of the K.G.B., from which Mr. Putin and his closest associates rose, and fueled by the national sense of humiliation over Russia’s helplessness in the 1990s. “You should understand,” Mr. Saakashvili said, mocking the Europeans who urge forbearance on him, “that the crocodile is hungry. Well, from the point of view of someone who wants to keep his own leg, that’s hard to accept.”
And yet the crocodile might have been held at bay were it not for Abkhazia and South Ossetia — the first a traditional Black Sea resort area that defined Georgia’s western frontier, and the second an impoverished, sparsely populated region that borders Russia to the north. Georgia is a polygot nation, and views both regions as historically, and inextricably, Georgian. Each, however, had its own language, culture, timeless history and separatist aspirations. When the Soviet Union collapsed, both regions sought to separate themselves from Georgia in bloody conflicts — South Ossetia in 1990-1, Abkhazia in 1992-4. Both wars ended with cease-fires that were negotiated by Russia and policed by peacekeeping forces under the aegis of the recently established Commonwealth of Independent States. Over time, the stalemates hardened into “frozen conflicts,” like that over Cyprus.
But the Georgians are intensely nationalistic, and viewed these de facto states on their border as an intolerable violation of sovereignty. Mr. Saakashvili cashed in on this deep sense of grievance, vowing to restore Georgia’s “territorial integrity.” Soon after taking office, he succeeded in regaining Georgian control over the southwestern province of Ajara. Then, in the summer of 2004, citing growing banditry and chaos, he sent Interior Ministry troops into South Ossetia. After a series of inconclusive clashes, the troops were forced to make a humiliating withdrawal.
Still, this violation of the status quo infuriated the Russians, and Mr. Saakashvili, for once listening to his few dovish advisors, agreed to seek a negotiated settlement in Abkhazia. By late 2005, a Georgian mediator had initialed an agreement: Georgia would not use force, and the Abkhaz would allow the gradual return of 200,000-plus ethnic Georgians who had fled the violence. But the agreement collapsed in early 2006, done in by hardliners on both sides. This chapter has been all but effaced from the history one hears in Georgia.
WAITING FOR A SPARK
This brief interval of talk came to an abrupt end two summers ago, when Mr. Saakashvili sent troops to retake the Kodori Valley in Abkhazia — in order, once again, to curb banditry (of which there was, in fact, a great deal). Both the Abkhaz and the Russians took this as a sign that Georgia was prepared to fight to regain its former province. Indeed, last year Mr. Saakashvili traveled to the Abkhaz border and promised a crowd of Georgian refugees that they would be back home within a year.
The breakaway regions were thus a stick of dynamite waiting to be lit. And Mr. Putin struck a match. Although Russia, as the peacekeeping power, was charged with preserving an international consensus that recognized Georgia’s claims over Abkhazia, Russia lifted sanctions on Abkhazia last March. This had nothing to do with local events: Mr. Putin had tried for years to prevent Kosovo from declaring its independence from Serbia, and when the Kosovars went ahead, with strong American and European support, last February, Mr. Putin responded by leveling a blow at America’s Caucasus darling.
Soon afterward, the Russian Duma held hearings on recognition of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway republic in Moldova. Moscow argued that the West’s logic on Kosovo should apply as well to these ethnic communities seeking to free themselves from the control of a hostile state. And then, in mid-April, Mr. Putin held out the possibility of recognition for the breakaway republics.
Now things began to degenerate rapidly. On April 21, Mr. Saakashvili called the Russian leader to demand that he reverse the decision. He reminded Mr. Putin that the West had taken Georgia’s side in the dispute. And Mr. Putin, according to several of Mr. Saakashvili’s associates, shot back with a suggestion about where they could put their statements. Mr. Saakashvili, prudent for once, shied from uttering the exact wording, but said that Mr. Putin had used “extremely offensive language,” and had repeated the expression several times.
Mr. Saakashvili was shaken by the naked hostility. He already feared that the West, or at least Europe, would never rally to Georgia’s side in a crisis; and here was Mr. Putin saying that the West’s support meant nothing to him. Here, indeed, was 1938.
The atmosphere during the early spring was electric with tension. Georgia accused Russia of shooting down a drone aircraft over Abkhazia; a United Nations report later confirmed the claim. Russia loudly insisted that Georgia was preparing for war; the Georgians had, indeed, mobilized troops and prepared fuel dumps.
Russia responded to the apparent Georgian preparations by dispatching 400 paratroopers and a battery of howitzers to a staging area not far from the cease-fire line, provoking a strong protest from NATO. “At the end of the day, we were very close to war” on May 9, says Temuri Yacobashvili, the Georgian minister of reintegration and a Saakashvili confidant. In fact, diplomats in Georgia and elsewhere give somewhat more credence to the Russian claims than to Georgia’s. State Department officials urged Mr. Saakashvili to calm down. Perhaps each side was trying to provoke the other into striking first, and thus losing the battle of public opinion. Of course, that’s how wars often start.
Until last week, it was Abkhazia, not South Ossetia, that seemed the likeliest candidate for a war of inadvertence, and so I visited there in late June. It was hard to fathom what people were fighting over. In the capital, Sukhumi, population 40,000, relics of the fighting were everywhere, and the giant Soviet-era Parliament building was a scorched hulk. The streets were all but deserted.
THE SPIRAL DOWN
Talking to the Georgians about Abkhazia, and the Abkhaz about Georgia, was like shuttling between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Georgians said that they were “always there,” that Abkhazia was a Georgian kingdom, and that only by expelling the ethnic Georgians at the end of the war did the Abkhaz make themselves a majority in the province. The Abkhaz said that they are the descendants of a “1,000-year-old kingdom,” that they were the victims of a massive campaign of Russian deportation in the 1860s, and then that Stalin forced them into the Georgian yoke. The Abkhaz talk about the Georgians pretty much the same way that the Georgians talk about the Russians. On that point, the Abkhaz share much with the South Ossetians. For them, as for the Ossetians, Georgia is the neighborhood bully.
It’s a pretty safe bet that Georgia and Abkhazia will not resolve their conflict on their own. Both breakaway regions are quite willing to live with the Russian-enforced status quo, but even relatively moderate Georgian officials consider that status quo utterly unacceptable. When I asked Temuri Yacobashvili, a cultivated man who is one of the country’s leading art patrons, why Georgia couldn’t focus on the threat from Russia and let the Abkhaz have their de facto state, he said, “These are not two different things, because it’s not amputating hand, it’s amputating head, or heart. No Georgian president could survive if he gave up on Abkhazia.” And, he added, “if the international community by its inaction will not leave any other option for Georgia, then we have to make decision.”
If the West, that is, won’t induce Russia to stop using the border region as a pawn, Georgia will be left with no choice save war. And how will the West do that? Mr. Saakashvili suggests sanctions, like travel bans, on individual Russian leaders. When I posed the same question to Giga Bokeria, another confidante who is deputy minister for foreign affairs, he said, “If Russia ceases to be an empire.” These are not serious answers.
The situation in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia took yet another turn down the spiral of confrontation in July, when mysterious acts of violence plagued both regions. There were bombings in Abkhazia. There were shootings in South Ossetia. Who was behind the string of attacks? Criminal gangs? Provocateurs? Georgian secret agents? No one knew, but that didn’t stop the accusations from flying. Abkhazia closed the cease-fire line, then cut all ties with Georgia. On July 8, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about to visit Georgia, Russia sent fighter jets over South Ossetia. Georgian Interior Ministry forces squared off against civilians in South Ossetia. The pot was boiling. And then, last week, the lid blew in South Ossetia, for reasons that remain unclear. Diplomats are now laboring mightily to prevent the war from spreading, though hostilities may serve too many different interests to be easily contained.
THE WEST GETS SCARED
There is real alarm in the West about the deteriorating situation in the Caucasus. Diplomats from Washington and the major European capitals, as well as from the United Nations, the European Union and NATO, have been crisscrossing the region trying to bring the parties together. In July, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister of Germany, the lead nation of the United Nations secretary general’s “Group of Friends” of Georgia, approached the Georgians and the Abkhaz with a peace plan similar in outline to the one that failed two years ago. The Georgians agreed to a meeting in Bonn; the Abkhaz, presumably with Russian support, refused. Mr. Saakashvili himself had tried to show a more conciliatory side, proposing guarantees of autonomy for Abkhazia within a federated Georgia, as well as the establishment of a jointly controlled free economic zone adjacent to the cease-fire line. (The Abkhaz rejected the offer, not only because they insist on independence, but because they assumed, perhaps correctly, that Mr. Saakashvili was posturing for the West.)
What is striking, though, is the growing consensus about Russian behavior. The United Nations, the European Union and NATO have all sided with Georgia in the disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Mr. Saakashvili was deeply disappointed when NATO declined in early April to put Georgia and Ukraine on the path to membership, but he says that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, explained to him that while the Germans “don’t want to be pushed” on NATO, they might offer their support later this year. Almost as satisfying to Mr. Saakashvili was his discovery that Ms. Merkel “gets it” about Russia — “because she knows Russia from her own experience.”
In a recent essay, the archrealist Henry Kissinger argued that Putin-era policy had been driven not by dreams of restored glory, but by “a quest for a reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice.” Some Russia experts on the left, like Stephen Cohen of Princeton, have taken a similar view. But Russia’s bellicose behavior, and now the hostilities along its border, make it increasingly difficult to act on such a premise without seeming naïve.
People of all political persuasion now seem to get it about Russia. In “The Return of History and The End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan, the neoconservative foreign policy expert who is advising John McCain, writes of Mr. Putin and his coterie: “Their grand ambition is to undo the post-cold war settlement and to re-establish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia.” Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”
For the West, the core issue is the survival of democratic, or at least independent, states along Russia’s frontier. But for this very reason, even the United States, which has been Georgia’s most steadfast ally, distinguishes between the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the one hand, and Russia’s threat to Georgia’s autonomy and integrity on the other.
HOPING FOR PATIENCE
Administration officials have regularly cautioned Mr. Saakashvili to be patient on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even as they have given private and public reassurances about NATO membership. It would, in fact, be surprising if Georgia had consciously provoked a war in South Ossetia, since Mr. Saakashvili understands that doing so would almost certainly put an end to the NATO bid; indeed, Russia may well calculate that NATO will continue to exclude Georgia so long as the country is embroiled in hostilities along its border.
Georgia’s predicament seems very simple from the vantage point of Tbilisi — 1921, 1938 — but extremely complicated from a great remove. Russia threatens Georgia, but Georgia threatens Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia looks like a crocodile to Georgia, but Georgia looks to Russia like the cats’ paw of the West. One party has all the hard power it could want, the other all the soft. And now, while the world was looking elsewhere, the frozen conflict between them has thawed and cracked. It will take a great deal of care and attention even to put things back to where they were before.
Original article posted here.