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America Punts Again: The Republic of Georgia and Russia

The Bush White House executed another break with its former muscular posture during the Georgian crisis in mid-2008. The United States, as noted above, had championed the 2003 Rose revolution to secure the Republic of Georgia’s genuine independence from Moscow’s quasicolonial embrace of the former Soviet republic. America’s diplomatic backing ensured that Mikheil Saakashvili, a Western-orientated reformer, assumed the presidency after a disputed election. The Bush administration made the youthful politician a poster image for its “freedom-agenda.” Thus, when the Oval Office did not come to Georgia’s aid in its war with Russia, its abandonment was all the more pronounced.

Once in office, Saahaskhvili drew Moscow’s ire. The nationalistic president tilted his tiny nation toward the West against Russian wishes. The Kremlin already nursed a deep humiliation over the West’s interference in Kosovo by bombing Russian-aligned Serbia and ousting Slobodan Milosevic from power. The Russians resolved to push back against any further American influence in their near-abroad. They figured that Georgia was ripe for subversion. The Republic of Georgia’s Achilles’s heel developed from “frozen conflicts” in its rebellious enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, populated with non-Georgian peoples. During the 1990s, both these pocket-sized provinces rebelled against Tbilisi’s rule. They obtained a measure of autonomy from Georgia and protection from Moscow.

Events beyond its control sealed Georgia’s fate with Russia. When the United States and European states at long last diplomatically recognized Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008, their actions precipitated Russian hostility toward Georgia as a protege of the West.94 Hardly had the ink dried on Kosovo’s independence declaration than Moscow set the stage for a conflict with the Republic of Georgia. The Russian Duma passed a resolution calling on the Tbilisi to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states. The Duma also urged the Kremlin to protect the citizens of each. Russian authorities openly armed separatists in the two breakaway provinces. Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin sent a letter to the separatist leaders, pledging his practical support.

Fighting broke out in South Ossetia between Ossetian separatists and Georgian regular troops in the first week of August 2008. The conflict quickly escalated as Russian forces engaged the Georgian army. Harassed and cornered, Saakashvili unwisely went to war against Russia over its “creeping invasion” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Some Georgians held out hope that the Bush administration might send the US Calvary. After all, the same American government stood up for Georgia against Russian muscle-flexing five years earlier during the Rose Revolution. Even though the heirs to the Red Army underperformed against Georgian forces, the Russian military overmatched by several fold Tbilisi’s defenses. David failed to slay Goliath in this contest.

As Ronald Asmus wrote in A Little War That Shook the World, the August conflict had everything to do with Georgia seeking to break free from its semi-colonial relationship with an overweening and interfering Kremlin. The war also represented a signpost to the future. It demonstrated that Russia no longer felt obliged to work with the West. Thus, it marked one of the clearest instances of Moscow’s emerging anti-American game plan. The war was payback for all of Moscow’s perceived humiliations and slights over NATO’s eastward expansion toward its borders, the EU’s enlargement, and the West’s intervention in Kosovo against Moscow’s interests.95 Turning the tables on Washington and European capitals, the Kremlin adopted a faux analogy by equating Georgia with Serbia and Saakashvili with a new Milosevic to justify the Russian invasion of Georgian territory for “peacekeeping.” The Kremlin’s military offensive constituted an early rollout of its subversive operations in the annexation of the Crimea and the hybrid war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, as will be subsequently analyzed.96

The Bush administration found an exit door to escape from rescuing Georgia. It retreated from America’s long-standing assumption that only the United States was strong enough to stand up to Russia. Dating from the Cold War years, Washington thought that Europe lacked the strength and coherence to face down Moscow. Searching for a way to avoid going to the assistance of a besieged Georgia, now George Bush turned over the lead for ending the Russo-Georgian war to the Europeans. The American foreign policy mandarins knew full well that Europe was less keen on Georgia’s independence streak than even the United States. In some respects, Bush’s abdication was a “prototype” for his successor’s policy of “leading from behind” in the 2011 Libyan bombing campaign or of staying clear of the Syrian imbroglio. In any event, the American leader looked to Paris, which held the rotating presidency of the EU in mid-2008. No surprise, Georgia stood virtually alone against its powerful neighbor, which reversed the small Caucasus nation’s drift toward the West and its hoped-for membership in NATO and the EU.

The Bush administration’s predicament stemmed from its earlier overextension. The country wearied of wars and expenditures in foreign lands. Moreover, the president was a lame duck with just a few months left in office. In late summer, the American economy faltered as it plunged into a deep financial crisis, which led to the multiyear Great Recession. Even before that severe economic downturn, George Bush’s poll numbers plunged. One CNN poll recorded that “71 percent of the American public disapproves of how Bush is handling his job as president.” Poll analysts contented that no prior president had ever crossed the 70 percent disapproval threshold. And even though the violence in Iraq had dissipated markedly by mid-2008, only 38 percent of Americans believed things were going well for the United States in the Persian Gulf nation.97 Widespread dissatisfaction with President Bush’s policies made it easy for Barack Obama to promise the polar opposite of the incumbent’s international interventionism.

Bush’s end-of-term pullbacks from his earlier interventionist strategy anticipated what was to be an extraordinary disengagement by his successor in the White House.98 Even before Bush returned to Texas, his administration had set in motion a shift away from the robust engagement that so characterized his first years in office. The cycles of US foreign policy have not been rigidly confined to the exact start and end of presidential terms. Overlaps in policies typified other presidencies. Americans sensed that their country overreached itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these sentiments seeped into White House thinking.

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