Who Poked the Bear?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 12, 2008; 12:41 PM

There doesn't seem to be much President Bush can do about the Russian invasion of Georgia at this point. Except maybe feel guilty about his role in provoking it.

Russia's response to Georgia's military push last week into the Russian-allied separatist province of South Ossetia has been, in the eyes of the Western world, shockingly brutal and wildly disproportionate. But hindsight suggests Bush has been playing with fire in that region for years now, and that an overpowering Russian response was a predictable outcome to continued provocation.

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Many experts in foreign policy say that one reason Russia responded so forcefully to Georgia's attempt to take back South Ossetia is that the United States and Europe had been asserting themselves in Russia's backyard, alienating Moscow by supporting Kosovo's bid for independence.

"These expert say that the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy, including backing [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili as a beacon of democracy on Russia's borders, may have emboldened the Georgian president to take provocative actions that brought a fierce Russian response.

"Beyond that, Russia has also been angry about American plans to put a missile defense system in Poland, and by American moves to encourage Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO.

"'The combination is that the overall means with which we've dealt with the Russians over the last two years have painted them into a corner so that it's difficult for them not to see us as hostile,' said Michael Greig, conflict management specialist at the University of North Texas."

Susan Cornwell writes for Reuters that the U.S. "is partly to blame for encouraging Georgia's pro-Western government to overreach, analysts said. She quotes Dimitri Simes, founding president of the Nixon Center in Washington: "It is not a happy situation, and we did not have to have this situation, and I think the (Bush) administration has considerable responsibility for that."

Cornwell continues: "Simes said U.S. encouragement of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, one of Washington's staunchest allies, may have led him to believe he could get away with military action to take back control of South Ossetia.

"The Bush administration has pushed hard for Georgia to join NATO, against European misgivings and Russian fury at the idea.

"'Saakashvili was discouraged from attacking Russian troops in South Ossetia but he clearly never was told point blank "If you do it, you are on your own,"' said Moscow-born Simes, who was an informal adviser to President Richard Nixon.

"Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that U.S. encouragement may have made Saakashvili 'miscalculate' and send Georgian troops into South Ossetia.

"'I think in many respects Saakashvili got too close to the United States and the United States got too close to Saakashvili,' Kupchan said. 'It made him overreach, it made him feel at the end of the day that the West would come to his assistance if he got into trouble.'"

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