Ten years ago this week, Vladimir Putin struck one of the first major blows when he sent Russian forces into South Ossetia in neighboring Georgia in support of Russian-backed separatists. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, fearing a full-blown invasion, ordered his troops to attack, thus springing Putin’s trap. Using the Georgian attack as a pretext, Putin launched that full-blown invasion, with tens of thousands of troops, fighter aircraft and elements of the Black Sea Fleet all pre-positioned and ready to move the instant Saakashvili acted.
The five-day Russo-Georgian war was ostensibly fought over disputed territories, but Putin’s real purpose was geopolitical. Georgia, like other former Soviet satellites and republics, was seeking to integrate into the West economically and politically, and to gain Western protection from Moscow. Fearing Putin’s reaction, NATO that spring had refused to offer Georgia even a road map to membership in the alliance, but Putin moved anyway — to punish the Georgians, to warn others and to send a clear message to the West. Russia was going to reassert its hegemony by force.
The West’s response bordered on indifference. The administration of George W. Bush, which had championed Georgia’s appeal for NATO membership, wanted little to do with the crisis. Just as President Barack Obama clearly believed that Ukraine was not worth war with Russia, Bush’s national security adviser ended all talk of punishing Moscow’s aggression by asking: “Are we prepared to go to war with Russia over Georgia?”
Bush did not even levy sanctions. The United States provided humanitarian assistance but refused Georgian requests for military equipment. Bush let French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiate the cease-fire, and Sarkozy (who as a private citizen would later endorse Russia’s annexation of Crimea) made a deal that left Russian troops on Georgian territory, where they remain today. Just as the British and French blamed the Czechs for provoking Hitler in the 1930s, Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blamed Saakashvili for “letting the Russians provoke him,” even while acknowledging that the attack was “premeditated.”
In the end, Putin was rewarded. As former U.S. ambassador to Russia and Post contributor Michael McFaul notes in “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” his outstanding account of this period, the basic concepts of Obama’s “reset” policy took shape in response to Georgia. The lesson for Obama and his team was that the United States needed better relations with Moscow to avoid future confrontations. Less than a year after the Russian invasion, Obama held his first summit with the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and launched efforts to smooth things over with Russia.
The Russo-Georgian war established a modus operandi that Putin would employ against Ukraine almost exactly six years later. In both cases, the Russian attack was preceded and accompanied by extensive cyberwarfare and “fake news.” In both cases, Russian forces moved in surreptitiously before the main attack. Both invasions were cloaked in ambiguity and confusion, leading many in the West to blame the victims. In both cases, Moscow claimed to be defending pro-Russian populations from alleged mistreatment. But the real purpose was to restore Russian hegemony over former Soviet republics seeking to integrate into the liberal world order — in Ukraine’s case by negotiating a trade deal with the European Union.
The Russian attack on Georgia also displayed the effectiveness of Putin’s narrative of grievance. Although Russia committed the aggression, many in the West blamed others — Saakashvili, Bush, NATO — for “forcing” Putin’s hand. Today, “realists” and the left blame the United States and the West for provoking Putin in Ukraine. Russia should have its sphere of interest, they argue. The enlargement of NATO made Putin and the Russians feel insecure. The West pushed too far.
It is one of Putin’s greatest triumphs that this narrative is widely accepted today in the American academy and by large segments of both political parties. As McFaul explains, however, it is mostly a myth, designed by Putin to justify his increasingly autocratic and personalistic rule to his own people. American and European actions after the Cold War did not prevent cooperation with Russia during the 1990s, after 9/11 or during the first two years of the Obama administration. The United States and Europe provided billions of dollars in aid to Russia and sought to help integrate Russia into the world economy. The United States created post-Cold War security and economic arrangements such as the NATO-Russia Council, the Group of Eight and the expanded Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to strengthen ties with Moscow and give it a greater say in global councils. The two powers negotiated and ratified arms control agreements and cooperated on Afghanistan and Iran.
All this began to change as Putin came to worry about his own hold on power in Moscow. He was alarmed by the democratic revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004. But as McFaul notes, it was the disastrous Russian parliamentary elections of 2011 that had the greatest impact. The widespread protests against election irregularities and against Putin’s planned return to the presidency for a third term led him to revive the “old Soviet-era argument as his new source of legitimacy — defense of the motherland against the evil West, and especially the imperial, conniving, threatening United States.” Depicting the Obama administration as a threat to Russian security was a tall order, but with willing consumers in the United States and Europe, Putin succeeded.
Trump’s outreach to Putin is not really such a departure, therefore. He may have his own special reasons for seeking a “reset” with Russia, and he certainly shares common aims with Putin unlike any past American president. But he is also following a familiar script. Ten years on, the real lessons of Russian aggression still escape us.