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Does U.S. Share Blame For Russia-Georgia Crisis?

  • Heather Maher

Did the United States encourage Mikheil Saakashvili to try to reclaim Georgia's breakaway provinces?

Did the United States encourage Mikheil Saakashvili to try to reclaim Georgia's breakaway provinces?

The Russian invasion of Georgia has generated a storm of editorials and commentaries in the U.S. media.

And the vast majority of it is hugely critical of Russia. The reason appears nightly on the television news: Russian troops occupy Georgian towns, thousands of Georgian citizens made homeless, and Georgia's economy in shambles.

But not all the criticism is solely directed at Moscow.

Some analysts have also raised the question of whether Washington and Tbilisi also bear responsibility for the crisis. The issue has become known as the "Who poked the bear?" question.

Charles Kupchan, a Russia expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, says Washington does not bear "direct responsibility" for the war but was nevertheless sending Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili mixed signals, signals that could have fueled the showdown.

"On the one hand, [Washington] was telling [Saakashvili] to behave, not to tempt Russia to use force in Georgia," Kupchan says.

"On the other hand, the United States was a very close ally of Georgia, it was training Georgian troops, Georgia had 2,000 soldiers in Iraq, and I think the closeness of the relationship with the United States did encourage Saakashvili to overreach and think that he could get away with more than he could."

Michael Grieg, a conflict-management specialist at the University of North Texas, takes the issue further. He questions whether the U.S. administration's supporting independence for the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, promoting NATO's expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine, and planning a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe also played a role in stoking tensions.

"I think Russia, in many respects, feels that it's really been sort of been treated sort of like a second-class citizen relative to the rest of the West," Grieg says.

"I think it sees the expansion of NATO as a threat to its security. It sees the deployment of the U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic as threats to its security," he adds. "So I think in that sense, it sees itself as not sitting at the same table as the West."

But other analysts say that the problem is not that Washington went too fast in supporting Georgian democracy and eventual NATO membership but, rather, too slow.

"Following this war, it will be years before Georgia again reaches NATO's current criteria for new members," Ronald Asmus, the executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center and in charge of strategic planning at the U.S. German Marshall Fund, wrote in "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" on August 18.

"Here, too, we need to change our approach and embrace a country whose survival is at stake, too," Asmus added. "These new commitments, if undertaken, must be backed up by credible military planning and defense arrangements that deter Russia."

Back In The USSR?

While analysts differ widely over how much U.S. policies played a role in either creating the crisis or permitting it happen, most commentators agree on one thing. That is, that quite apart from Washington's agenda for Georgia, Moscow had its own priorities. And those were to rein in Tbilisi before it could break out of Russia's historical sphere of influence.

"If you look at this through Russian eyes, this has not been a partnership with the West. This has been the West taking advantage of Russian weakness," says George Friedman, chief executive of Stratfor, a geopolitical risk analysis firm. "And it has created a sense among the Russians that the relationship has to be rectified."

As evidence, he points to developments in Russia over the past eight years -- the consolidation of political power, the massing of wealth among a relative few, and reversals of democratic freedoms. All are markers on Russia's road back to becoming a massive force in the region again, he says.

And the map drawn up in 1992 of the post-Soviet sphere? Nothing more than an illusion, he believes. He argues that the events unfolding in Georgia may be only the start of Russia's attempt to regain hegemony in the region:

"The collapse of the Soviet Union to the current state was a temporary phenomenon that Westerners took to be permanent," Friedman says. "It is now changing into something else and the West is stunned by the fact that it's not going to stay the way it was."

That is an issue likely to much preoccupy the U.S. foreign-policy community in the weeks ahead as the debate over what happened in Georgia this month continues.

The immediate problem may be how to support Georgia without completely alienating Moscow. The longer-term problem will be whether the West can maintain a constructive relationship with Moscow without completely alienating its own democratic values.
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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