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'We Are All Georgians'? Not So Fast.

By Michael Dobbs
Sunday, August 17, 2008

It didn't take long for the "Putin is Hitler" analogies to start following the eruption of the ugly little war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia. Neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan compared the Russian attack on Georgia with the Nazi grab of the Sudetenland in 1938. President Jimmy Carter's former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said that the Russian leader was following a course "horrifyingly similar to that taken by Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s."

Others invoked the infamous Brezhnev doctrine, under which Soviet leaders claimed the right to intervene militarily in Eastern Europe in order to prop up their crumbling imperium. "We've seen this movie before, in Prague and Budapest," said John McCain, referring to the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. According to the Republican presidential candidate,"today we are all Georgians."

Actually, the events of the past week in Georgia have little in common with either Hitler's dismemberment of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II or Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. They are better understood against the backdrop of the complica ted ethnic politics of the Caucasus, a part of the world where historical grudges run deep and oppressed can become oppressors in the bat of an eye.

Unlike most of the armchair generals now posing as experts on the Caucasus, I have actually visited Tskhinvali, a sleepy provincial town in the shadow of the mountains that rise along Russia's southern border. I was there in March 1991, shortly after the city was occupied by Georgian militia units loyal to Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first freely elected leader of Georgia in seven decades. One of Gamsakhurdia's first acts as Georgian president was to cancel the political autonomy that the Stalinist constitution had granted the republic's 90,000-strong Ossetian minority.

After negotiating safe passage with Soviet interior ministry troops who had stationed themselves between the Georgians and the Ossetians, I discovered that the town had been ransacked by Gamsakhurdia's militia. The Georgians had trashed the Ossetian national theater, decapitated the statue of an Ossetian poet and pulled down monuments to Ossetians who had fought with Soviet troops in World War II. The Ossetians were responding in kind, firing on Georgian villages and forcing Georgian residents of Tskhinvali to flee their homes.

It soon became clear to me that the Ossetians viewed Georgians in much the same way that Georgians view Russians: as aggressive bullies bent on taking away their independence. "We are much more worried by Georgian imperialism than Russian imperialism," an Ossetian leader, Gerasim Khugaev, told me then. "It is closer to us, and we feel its pressure all the time."

When it comes to apportioning blame for the latest flare-up in the Caucasus, there's plenty to go around. The Russians were clearly itching for a fight, but the behavior of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has been erratic and provocative. The United States may have stoked the conflict by encouraging Saakashvili to believe that he enjoyed American protection, when the West's ability to impose its will in this part of the world is actually quite limited.

Let us examine the role played by the three main parties.

Georgia. Saakashvili's image in the West, and particularly in the United States, is that of the great "democrat," the leader of the "Rose Revolution" who spearheaded a popular uprising against former American favorite Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003. It is true that he has won two reasonably free elections, but he has also displayed some autocratic tendencies: He sent riot police to crush an opposition protest in Tbilisi last November and shuttered an opposition television station.

While the United States views Saakashvili as a pro-Western modernizer, a large part of his political appeal in Georgia has stemmed from his promise to reunify Georgia by bringing the secessionist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under central control. He has presented himself as the successor to the medieval Georgian king David the Builder and promised that the country will regain its lost territories by the time he leaves office, by one means or another. American commentators tend to overlook the fact that Georgian democracy is inextricably intertwined with Georgian nationalism.

The restoration of Georgia's traditional borders is an understandable goal for a Georgian leader, but it is a much lower priority for the West, particularly if it involves armed conflict with Russia. Based on their previous experience with Georgian rule, Ossetians and Abkhazians have perfectly valid reasons to oppose reunification with Georgia, even if it means throwing in their lot with the Russians.

It is unclear how the simmering tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia came to the boil this month. The Georgians say that they were provoked by the shelling of Georgian villages from Ossetian-controlled territory. While this may well be the case, the Georgian response was disproportionate. On the night of Aug. 7 and into Aug. 8, Saakashvili ordered an artillery barrage against Tskhinvali and sent an armored column to occupy the town. He apparently hoped that Western support would protect Georgia from major Russian retaliation, even though Russian "peacekeepers" were almost certainly killed or wounded in the Georgian assault.

It was a huge miscalculation. Russian Prime minister Vladimir Putin (and let there be no doubt that he is calling the shots in Moscow despite having handed over the presidency to his protege, Dmitri Medvedev) now had the ideal pretext for settling scores with the uppity Georgians. Rather than simply restoring the status quo ante, Russian troops moved into Georgia proper, cutting the main east-west highway at Gori and attacking various military bases.

Saakashvili's decision to gamble everything on a lightning grab for Tskhinvali brings to mind the comment of the 19th-century French statesman Talleyrand: "It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake."

Russia. Putin and Medvedev have defended their incursion into Georgia as motivated by a desire to stop the "genocide" of Ossetians by Georgians. It is difficult to take their moral outrage very seriously. There is a striking contrast between Russian support for the right of Ossetian self-determination in Georgia and the brutal suppression of Chechens who were trying to exercise that very same right within the boundaries of Russia.

Playing one ethnic group against another in the Caucasus has been standard Russian policy ever since czarist times. It is the ideal wedge issue for the Kremlin, particularly in the case of a state such as Georgia, which is made up of several different nationalities. It would be virtually impossible for South Ossetia to survive as an autonomous entity without Russian support. Putin's government has issued passports to Ossetians and secured the appointment of Russians to key positions in Tskhinvali.

The Russian incursion into Georgia proper has been even more "disproportionate" -- in President Bush's phrase -- than the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali. The Russians have made no secret of their wish to replace Saakashvili with a more compliant leader. Russian military targets included the Black Sea port of Poti -- more than 100 miles from South Ossetia.

The real goal of Kremlin strategy is to reassert Russian influence in a part of the world that has been regarded, by czars and commissars alike, as Russia's backyard. Russian leaders bitterly resented the eastward expansion of NATO to include Poland and the Baltic states -- with Ukraine and Georgia next on the list -- but were unable to do very much about it as long as America was strong and Russia was weak. Now the tables are turning for the first time since the collapse of communism in 1991, and Putin is seizing the moment.

If Putin is smart, he will refrain from occupying Georgia proper, a step that would further alarm the West and unite Georgians against Russia. A better tactic would be to wait for Georgians themselves to turn against Saakashvili. The precedent here is what happened to Gamsakhurdia, who was overthrown in January 1992 by the same militia forces he had sent into South Ossetia a year earlier.

The United States. The Bush administration has been sending mixed messages to its Georgian friends. U.S. officials insist that they did not give the green light to Saakashvili for his attack on South Ossetia. At the same time, however, the United States has championed NATO membership for Georgia, sent military advisers to bolster the Georgian army and demanded the restoration of Georgian territorial integrity. American support might well have emboldened Saakashvili as he was considering how to respond to the "provocations" from South Ossetia.

Now the United States has ended up in a situation in the Caucasus where the Georgian tail is wagging the NATO dog. We were unable to control Saakashvili or to lend him effective assistance when his country was invaded. One lesson is that we need to be very careful in extending NATO membership, or even the promise of membership, to countries that we have neither the will nor the ability to defend.

In the meantime, American leaders have paid little attention to Russian diplomatic concerns, both inside the former borders of the Soviet Union and farther abroad. The Bush administration unilaterally abrogated the 1972 anti-missile defense treaty and ignored Putin when he objected to Kosovo independence on the grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent. It is difficult to explain why Kosovo should have the right to unilaterally declare its independence from Serbia, while the same right should be denied to places such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The bottom line is that the United States is overextended militarily, diplomatically and economically. Even hawks such as Vice President Cheney, who have been vociferously denouncing Putin's actions in Georgia, have no stomach for a military conflict with Moscow. The United States is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and needs Russian support in the coming trial of strength with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Instead of speaking softly and wielding a big stick, as Teddy Roosevelt recommended, the American policeman has been loudly lecturing the rest of the world while waving an increasingly unimpressive baton. The events of the past few days serve as a reminder that our ideological ambitions have greatly exceeded our military reach, particularly in areas such as the Caucasus, which is of only peripheral importance to the United States but of vital interest to Russia.

dobbsm@washpost.com

Michael Dobbs covered the collapse of the Soviet Union for The Washington Post. His latest book is "One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War."

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