Outlook: An Incomparable Mess in the Caucuses
Georgia-Russia Fight Defies Pundits' Tidy Historical Metaphors

Michael Dobbs
Former Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief
Monday, August 18, 2008 12:00 PM

"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 complicated 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. ... 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."

Former Washington Post Moscow bureau chief (and current washingtonpost.com Fact-Checker blogger) Michael Dobbs was online Monday, Aug. 18 at noon ET to discuss his Outlook article explaining the complex situation in Georgia and the decades of Georgian, Russian and American gamesmanship that set up the swiftly escalated clash.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Michael Dobbs: Greetings everybody. I am ready to answer your questions about the Russia-Georgia dispute, and its implications for the rest of us, so fire away.


Tbilisi, Georgia: Will you promote the truth that the undeclared war of Russia against Georgia/Sakartvelo was based on the distortion of the history of the Ossi and advise to move the non-Georgian terrorist so-called Osses to any rich, large country -- say to Arabia, China, Siberia or elsewhere?

Michael Dobbs: It seems appropriate that Tbilisi should ask the first question. However, I am not sure I understand your point. You seem to be advocating ethnic cleansing of the Ossetian population, and wholesale deportation to China or Siberia. Not sure that this is the most humane or best solution to the problem! Please clarify. Thanks.


Wilmette, Ill.: Despite subtle differences in tone, Bush, McCain and Obama all seem to be pretty much on the same page so far as the Georgia-Russia conflict is concerned. Please tell me I'm wrong, and that one of these pols has a better understanding of the situation and how to make it better in the short run and long run.

Michael Dobbs: I think there have been differences in the responses of the two candidates. They both support Georgia, but Obama has been more nuanced in his support than McCain, and has stressed the need for dialogue for Russia. He does not want to throw Russia out of the G-8, for example, as McCain does. From my perspective, I don't think any of the candidates has a real historical understanding of this very complex issue.


New York: We know Russians lost about 2,000 citizens and about 70 peacekeepers. What's the status on how many soldiers Georgia has lost in this war so far?

Michael Dobbs: Russia claims that 2,000 South Ossetians were killed in the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali on the night of August 7/8. However, western journalists who have been to the town have not been able to confirm this figure. Like many claims by both sides, it seems to be a great exaggeration. Last figure I saw for the number of soldiers lost by Georgia was around 150, which seems quite possible.


Gaithersburg, Md.: How does this conflict affect the situation we have with Iran? If there is a military attack against Iran, do you think Russians will stand by while we attack their neighbor and business partner? I was told that there was a treaty between Iran and Russia dated from decades ago that, in the event of an invasion, Russia would be obligated to help Iranians.

Michael Dobbs: Russia has been generally concerned about the U.S. penchant for attacking other countries without approval from the U.N. Security Council. In the case of Iran, they probably feel some ambivalence. On the one hand, they are suspicious of U.S. motives and have their own connections with Teheran. On the other hand, they have no interest in their southern neighbor acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran is a potential threat to them, as well as to the U.S., in the end.


Louisville, Ky.: The breadth and depth of private lobbyist roots reach into our governments is beyond the imagination of ordinary folks. It seems as if the more our governments privatize its services the more the E. coli outgrowth of lobbyist multiplies. What can be done to insulate our federal government from being manipulated into another war of choice by selfish lobbyist interests, like how McCain's pro-Georgia lobbyist senior advisers almost got the U.S. into a war with Russia?

Michael Dobbs: You are obviously referring to McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, who was a lobbyist for Georgia (his firm collected nearly $1 million from the Georgians) at the same time that he was advising McCain. I think you are right that there is an obvious conflict of interest here. The Georgians have been very successful in managing their PR image in the U.S.


Munich, Germany: Has there been any clarity on the question of who started the armed conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia? I've read reports that Georgian towns in South Ossetia, such as Nikozi, were attacked before Georgia launched its attack on Tskhinvali. The tragedy is that all these Georgian towns in South Ossetia, and the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, now lie in ruins.

Michael Dobbs: The Post ran a good story on this on Sunday by our Moscow bureau chief, Peter Finn. I recommend it to you. There is little doubt that Russia was itching for a fight, and permitted the Ossetians to shell Georgian villages from Ossetian-controlled territory. However, Saakashvili escalated the conflict by attacking Tskhinvali. In retrospect, this was obviously very unwise, as it gave the Russians the ideal pretext for intervening in force.


Oslo, Norway: So the West opposes independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, yet supports independence for Albanians in Serbia (Kosovo) and Arabs in Israel (Palestine). I really do not see the difference, other than those supported by the West are Muslim. Is there more to it than that?

Michael Dobbs: I agree that it can be difficult to explain why the West supports independence for Kosovo but not for South Ossetia/Abkhazia. The official explanation is that the Kosovars faced "genocide" from the Serbs, and that Georgian human rights abuses in Ossetia have been much less than Serbian abuses in Kosovo. However, it is all a matter of degree.

After the Kosovo war, Kosovar Albanians began harassing the Serb minority, so there was fault on both sides, as is often the case.


Helena, Mont.: I think South Ossetia is to Georgia as Kosovo was to Serbia -- a place where the government really doesn't like the majority who live there but doesn't want to let them go because they want the land. We came to the aid of the Kosovars, and I think Putin came to aid of South Ossetians to poke us in eye -- and because they did lose some people when Georgia went in.

I don't like all this pandering to Georgia, which seems to think we would intervene militarily when that would not be in our national interest. This whole episode puts into relief the reason why we need some kind of international understanding of sovereignty, etc., to protect small states from their larger neighbors. Our actions in past eight years have undermined the international understanding, and now we have to live with it.

Michael Dobbs: I agree with you that it is very difficult for Americans to understand the complexity of some of these disputes. When I visited South Ossetia about 18 years ago, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, it never occurred to me that Tskhinvali and SO would one day become a pretext for a new Cold War between Moscow and Washington....


Washington: Did the White House/State Department drop the ball here and allow the Georgian president to step into a dangerous trap?

Michael Dobbs: Hate to give credit to other papers, but the New York Times had a pretty good analysis this morning on this subject. U.S. officials say they never encouraged Saakashvili to move into South Ossetia There does not seem much doubt, however, that he felt emboldened by promises of NATO membership, and the vociferous PR support he was getting from the Bush administration.


New York: American ships were trying to get to the Black Sea, but Turkey stopped them. I know Turkey used to be good ally of America. ... What happened now?

Michael Dobbs: This only goes to show that America's allies do not necessarily see the conflict the same way that the U.S. does. I am not an expert on Turkey, but I assume that they do not want to be dragged into a dispute with Russia on their doorstep.


Alexandria, Va.: It was refreshing to read, for once, a more balanced analysis of the Russia-Georgia dispute. My question is this: To what extent did the Bush doctrine -- which means that the U.S. may decide when and where it likes to use unilateral military force, for reasons it deems sufficient -- legitimize, in a practical sense, Russia's use of force in the present instance? And to what extent did it weaken America's moral case against Russia in the eyes of third parties?

Michael Dobbs: This is a point that Putin has been making. I think it was McCain who protested that invading other countries is not something that should happen in the 21st century. But of course we have been doing precisely that ourselves. The U.S. would like to think that its interventions overseas are for altruistic reasons, while Russia is simply following its old imperialist policies, but it can be very difficult to explain the difference.


Sewickley, Pa.: I confess to being confused about this mess. I wonder how the U.S. would react if Russia were seeking to put missiles in Western Canada and claiming they were merely defensive. I grew up during the duck-and-cover days and took some courses in college that dealt with war gaming in the age of "mutually assured destruction." Canceling the anti-ballistic missile treaty and soliciting partners among the old Soviet bloc seems a little threatening. What am I not getting?

Michael Dobbs: It is obviously true that, particularly since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been very assertive in claiming a global role for itself. Russia is now asserting its traditional prerogatives along its borders. Leaving aside the moral issue, the key question is whether the U.S. can project its power to areas like the Caucasus without being challenged. If we extend Georgia NATO membership, as the Bush admin has promised, are we really prepared to defend the country if it gets into a dispute with its much larger neighbor. The events of the past week suggest that we are neither able nor willing to defend our putative ally. This is a practical question as much as a moral issue, in my view. The U.S. cannot extend its defense umbrella to the entire world.


Dallas: President Bush's explanation for why Americans should care about the fate of Georgia was hardly convincing. Do you believe it is our national interest to support Georgia, and to support its entry into NATO? If so, why?

Michael Dobbs: See my previous answer. The NATO guarantees of collective defense in the event of external attack are a serious business. We should think very carefully about who we extend them to. We should not invite countries into NATO that we are not prepared to defend. Otherwise, we will end up weakening NATO itself. The key question here is: leaving aside the question of who started this conflict, are we prepared to defend Georgia against Russian attack? The answer, as far as I can tell, is No.


Washington: Is Moldova -- where Russia has troops in Transnistria -- next, even though it shares no common border with Russia?

Michael Dobbs: You are right in saying that Transnistria, a Russian speaking region carved out of Moldova, shares many similarities with South Ossetia. It is effectively controlled by Russia. From my own experience visiting it, it is a pretty unpleasant place, a slice of the old Soviet Union that has become a haven for smugglers and criminal elements. However, the Moldovans have not made the mistake of trying to incorporate this region into Moldova by force.


Chicago: How much will this cost the U.S. in aid and otherwise? I'm getting pretty sick and tired of seeing these two-bit nations and separatist groups destroy their own countries and then expect the great powers to come in and pick up the pieces. Let the Ossetians, Georgians, Abkhazians and everybody else spend a winter outdoors contemplating whether they've made wise choices.

Michael Dobbs: Not sure how much this is costing the U.S. But clearly even the neocons do not have much stomach for an effective military intervention. I don't think you can blame the ordinary people. They are the victims of cynical politicians, of whom there are plenty on all sides.


Anonymous: Putin's actions are Realpolitik at its finest. Putin acted in the national interest of his country, morally right or wrong. Putin out-Bushed Bush.

Michael Dobbs: I agree with you that there was a large amount of realpolitik in Putin's response. This is one area where he differs from his Communist predecessors. It's not a matter of ideology for him, it's a matter of realpolitik. In many ways, American leaders are more ideological than Russian leaders these days.


Anonymous: The escalation occurred just a week or two after after Georgian, U.S. and NATO forces ended joint military training exercises in Georgia. One of the areas bombed by Russia was the airfield at the center of these joint exercises. Was this the proverbial straw?

Michael Dobbs: The Russians were also conducting military exercises on their side of the border. It was a tinderbox waiting to explode.


Columbus, Ohio: Thanks for the great profile and analysis piece Michael, but it mentioned US military advisers, which raises questions that I've yet to see addressed by any of the media: Were they in-country at the time? Where were they during the Georgian attack and the Russian response? Did they participate? Did they leave? Were they at any of the bases that came under attack? Were any of them casualties? I'd seen several earlier stories that mentioned the U.S. training the Georgian military, and then stopped seeing it mentioned at all. Any knowledge on this, or on why such an obvious journalistic question hasn't been asked or covered? Thanks.

Michael Dobbs: I believe there were US military advisers in-country at the time. Their role has been mainly in preparing Georgian troops to go to Iraq, plus some counter-terrorism missions inside Georgia. As far as I know, they are still in Georgia.


Rockville, Md.: As I recall, Russia has significant numbers of its population in several Eastern European countries other than Russia. I suspect this was by design from many years ago. How will it affect us?

Michael Dobbs: It is true that there are significant Russian populations in other former Soviet republics, particularly the Baltics. This was partly by design, partly just the result of many decades living together. Russia could obviously attempt to stir up nationalist feeling among Russian speakers in the Baltic states and Ukraine. Under Yeltsin, it largely resisted this temptation. Putin has toyed with the minority issue, and could try to use it in the future. We all have an interest in preventing the former Soviet Union from becoming a replay of the former Yugoslavia.


Columbia, Md.: How does this situation affect other countries in the Caucasus, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan? Seems to me that there are parallels with the situation between those two countries.

Michael Dobbs: Armenia has traditionally been pro-Russian, largely because they see Russia as a protector against the bigger enemy, Turkey. There is a small Armenian-inhabited enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh, which was part of Azerbaijan but is now controlled largely by Armenia. The Caucasus is riddled with would-be territorial disputes.


North McLean, Va.: Do you see this crisis as representing a fundamental change in the world, or is it just an isolated event brought on by a unique set of circumstances?

Michael Dobbs: Too early to tell. I do not see this as a return to the days of the Cold War. I see it more as Putin drawing a line in the sand, and making it clear to the West, and the U.S., that Russia is back. What happens next will depend on how we manage the relationship--but I do not see Russia developing into a global ideological threat to the U.S., as it was during the Cold War.


Washington: Mr. Dobbs, perhaps it bears repeating that while Russia supports "self-determination" rights for small ethnicities like the Ossetians and Abkhazians, they have been (to put it mildly) less disposed toward this principle in the case of the Chechens. How does the Russian government (or press) reconcile these different positions -- or do they not attempt to do so at all? Thank you.

Michael Dobbs: You are right. I made this point in my Outlook article. Obviously there is a contradiction here, which the Russians have no real explanation for. It boils down to realpolitik.


New York: In the future, what if Russia -- claiming that Poland's Patriot Defensive Missile Shield is a threat to its nuclear deterrence missiles -- decided to unilaterally bomb Poland's Patriot Missile Shield? How would you think NATO and the U.S. would respond? Would it be on a diplomatic or a military-escalation scale?

Michael Dobbs: A Russian attack on Poland, in any form, would be infinitely more serious than last week's incursion into Georgia. Poland is a member of NATO, and we would be obliged to defend Poland. I doubt if Russia will bomb Poland; they will look for other ways to bring pressure to bear, particularly economic pressure.


Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan: Russia was respected as a responsible country before it attacked Afghanistan in 1979, and now its forces enter Georgia when the world was busy watching Olympics. The reaction of the neighboring states will determine the future course. Don't you think Putin can make more such adventures in other countries?

Michael Dobbs: While Putin can be criticized for many things, I think that he is generally more realistic than Brezhnev, and has a sense of where to advance and where to stop. Brezhnev bit off more than he could chew when he attacked Afghanistan. Putin is a much cleverer, realistic, politician.


Princeton, N.J.: This ploy of using your nationals in a neighboring country as an excuse for an invasion is relatively common -- look at the early history of Texas.

Michael Dobbs: You are correct.


Chandler, Ariz.: If the Russian response in South Ossetia is a way of sending an unsubtle message to NATO about Georgia's proposed membership and defensive missiles in Poland, why not use "adjustments" to the flow of Russian oil into Western Europe? Was the display of force intended to be a rallying point inside Russia? Also, do we know the state of Russia's nuclear arsenal?

Michael Dobbs: I agree that Putin had wider goals than simply Georgia when he sent his troops in last week. He was sending a message to the U.S. that Russia will look after its interests, and there is not much we can do about it. It seems that he has overwhelming support for his action from inside Russia.


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Given the United States' reluctance to fully back Georgia, do you see this as setting a precedent with other countries that the U.S. supports in the region (i.e. the Ukraine) concerning the United States' ability to fulfill expected security commitments with those smaller, less-defensible nations? If so, what does this mean for the U.S.' relations/balance-of-power with Russia?

Michael Dobbs: Since Georgia was not in NATO, this does not set a precedent for how the U.S. will respond to attacks on NATO members, e.g. Poland and the Baltic States. Had Georgia been in NATO, there would obviously have been a much greater fallout from the Soviet attack.


Bethesda, Md.: When and where will Michael Dobbs be signing his new book "One Minute to Midnight" in the Washington area? My husband and I have read it from the library and think it is fabulous. We would like to buy a signed copy as a gift to our son, but can't find any schedule on any Web site. Thank you.

Michael Dobbs: Thanks for this question, and glad that you enjoyed my book on the Cuban missile crisis. I have been invited to the National Book Festival on the Mall in late September, so I hope to see you there, if you can make it.


Michael Dobbs: Thanks to everyone for a lively discussion. Sorry I did not get around to answering all the questions, but it was a good selection.


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