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August 2008 - Russian Assault on Georgia Tests the West and NATO

Amb. David Smith Briefs JINSA

The Russian assault on the Republic of Georgia, which had been weeks if not months in planning, surprised no one but Western leaders. Furthermore, ethnic cleansing of Georgian residents of South Ossetia were driven from their homes in a campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Russian military after Georgian military forces were pushed back. Ambassador David Smith of the Tbilisi office of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies briefed members of JINSA's Boards of Directors and Advisors as well as a select group of lay leaders via conference call on August 15.

Utilizing a network of sources on the ground, an intimate knowledge of Georgia and Russia and his own military background, Amb. Smith’s analysis of the Georgian security situation and the unfolding humanitarian crisis was not to be found in the output of the major media for another 48 hours.

Serving as a member of Georgia's International Security Advisory Board, Amb. Smith, who led the 1989 U.S.–Soviet Defense and Space Talks, is currently involved in a major project to assist the Republic of Georgia in reforming its national security institutions.

Russian tanks roll into Georgia in August 2008.Russian tanks roll into Georgia in August 2008.The scorched earth nature of the Russian advance into Georgia included incidents of eighteenth century-style "raping, pillaging and burning" carried out by irregular troops in the employ of the Russian army, mainly ethnic Chechens, Cossacks and Ossetians, Smith said. He also noted that the Russian military not only destroyed Georgian military equipment engaged in battle but also civilian infrastructure such as pipelines, railroad tracks and even ships at anchor.

"This happened because we sent a very feeble signal of our support of Georgia," Smith declared. He offered four geopolitical explanations for Russia’s aggression. First, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted to give Georgia a "spanking" to "punish" it for eagerly embracing the West and Western institutions and for openly challenging Russian attempts at regional hegemony. Only punishment can explain the summary executions, bombing of Georgian homes and ethnic cleansing on the part of the Russian military, Smith said. He noted that there are reports of internment camps established for Georgian men and boys in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, while women and children were expelled from South Ossetia.

Failing to unseat Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Putin wanted to lay waste to the country so that Saakashvili would be forced to spend the rest of his term begging other states for money to rebuild his shattered country, Smith said.

Russia sought to send a warning to its near abroad (Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Estonia and the states of Central Asia, among others) to restrain their dealings with the West. The attack on Georgia demonstrated Moscow's willingness to attack sovereign states, Smith noted, giving those countries pause when entering into energy deals with the West and severely damped their NATO aspirations.

Putin's other goal, Smith said, was to send a clear message to the West that Russia is willing to use any and all tactics necessary to retain its dominance over the countries that border it. This message, he declared, is one that the West must firmly reject, on both moral and geo-strategic grounds. Georgia is a bridgehead on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and an important doorway to the Caspian basin and provides an east-west energy corridor bypassing both Iran and Russia and should not be surrendered to Russian hegemony. Furthermore, Smith said, the ability to refuel in Georgia makes possible the use of the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan, which is critical for operations in Afghanistan. The ability to reach into Central Asia affords the United States the ability to outflank three hot spots: Russia, China and the Middle East, including Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. "The geopolitical reality is that you want to be able to position yourself [in regions of concern], if necessary. The Russians understand this and want to control the region commercially, socially and militarily."

But beyond the purely strategic concerns, there is the moral dimension and the issue of American and NATO credibility. Smith noted that while there is little to no support in the United States to send U.S. troops to defend Georgia, Georgia has committed troops to multiple Western/NATO military operations including Afghanistan and Kosovo and, until the conflict escalated this month with Russia, had the third highest number of coalition military personnel in Iraq.

For the foreseeable future the United States will necessarily rely on disparate coalitions to achieve its foreign policy goals. Since the mid-1990s, these coalitions have depended heavily on the new NATO entrants and NATO aspirants for political and military support. If we abandon Georgia, Smith declared, both the United States and NATO would lose credibility with the countries of Eastern and Central Europe.

The new NATO entrants of Central and Eastern Europe have long regarded NATO's Article 5 (an attack against one is an attack against all) with a degree of skepticism. They never stopped viewing Russia as a potential enemy and are aware that NATO has not formulated a post-Cold War plan to defend against a Russian attack on a European state. This partially explains Poland’s aggressive pursuit of additional incentives (Patriot air defense missiles and F-16 fighter jets) before allowing the stationing of U.S. ballistic missile interceptors on its soil.

Devoid of Article 5 credibility, NATO loses its greatest strength – deterrence, Smith declared. NATO restrained the Soviet Union during the Cold War without having to invoke Article 5 because Moscow believed that NATO forces would jointly defend any NATO member no matter how small. Today, not only do its own members question NATO's willingness to respond, but also Russia likely has its own doubts about NATO's strength under pressure.

So how did the U.S. government "fail so spectacularly" in predicting Russian aggression into Georgia? The answer, according to Smith, is "cognitive dissonance." "We so much wanted to believe that what was happening wasn’t happening" that we overlooked all the obvious signals – both military and diplomatic, he said. Policy analysts had been warning of the eventuality of a Russian incursion into Georgia for months. President Saakashvili repeatedly communicated his grave concerns to the U.S. government and Russian troops were massing on the Georgian borders for weeks prior to the attack.

While the Georgia predicament appears to lack an obvious military solution, Smith did outline a series of options, several of which were subsequently accepted while others are still being considered.

  • While American troops should not directly engage Russian troops in battle, the U.S. government can send a subtle military signal by keeping American forces on the ground in Georgia for humanitarian efforts. Additionally, U.S. forces can control the airports and seaports to keep our own personnel, aircraft and ships safe. This will send a strong message to Russia that we are serious about protecting Georgian sovereignty.

  • The U.S. government should call for the canceling of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Some of the Olympic sites are a scant 20 miles from the disputed Georgian territory of Abkhazia, currently a conflict zone – hardly a suitable venue for the Olympic games. A bill will soon be introduced in Congress calling for a venue change for the 2012 Olympics.
  • Dismiss Russia from the G-8. This international body is supposed to be made up of democratic, industrialized nations, and Russia is neither.
  • Disband the NATO-Russia Council.
  • Concede that not offering Georgia and Ukraine a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) was a mistake, and offer both to them post haste. MAP is not membership but rather a path that a country can follow toward membership. This is the appropriate stage for both Georgia and Ukraine.
  • Block Russian entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). How can we sanction WTO membership for a country that continues to impose a two-year-old total economic embargo against Georgia, a democracy.

Concluding his brief, Smith said that Russia was using Georgia as a testing ground. Both American and NATO credibility are on the line and to allow Russian aggression to succeed, will invite future conflicts with Moscow. The Russian government has made threatening gestures toward Ukraine for months and has interfered with the nascent democratic institutions of the countries in its near abroad for years. If NATO and America are to remain credible strategic partners, they must not back down.

An article by Amb. Smith adding further details to the unfolding crisis appeared in the Georgian newspaper 24 Saati (24 Hours) on September 1.

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