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Roundtable: Causes And Effects Of The Russia-Georgia War


Georgians with their belongings wait to be evacuated by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry from the village of Kurta, near Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, in August 2008.
Georgians with their belongings wait to be evacuated by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry from the village of Kurta, near Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, in August 2008.
Ahead of the first anniversary of the Russia-Georgia war that erupted on August 7-8, 2008, RFE/RL's Georgian Service invited two intent Russia- and Georgia-watchers for a discussion of the actions that precipitated that conflict, what it taught both countries and the international community, and its effect on future relations in the region and farther afield. The participants were Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War: How The Kremlin Menaces Both Russia And The West," and Lincoln Mitchell, a Georgia scholar and assistant professor in the Practice of International Politics, Columbia University. The discussion was moderated by RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Salome Asatiani and director David Kakabadze.

RFE/RL: Could you please give us a general assessment of where things stand for Georgia and Russia, in geopolitical terms, one year after the war? What did the military confrontation do for their international reputation and standing?

Edward Lucas: Well, I think that for everybody involved there have been some pluses and minuses.

I think that Russia was able to show that it could have a sharp confrontation and get away with it. And that broke what had been a taboo until that time. It also showed that the European Union was too divided to present a really serious front in response to this confrontation. On the other hand, I think Russia damaged its image in the outside world to some extent. And perhaps the willingness to trust Russia has gone down a bit.

I think Georgia initially was seen as the victim of the war and benefited a bit from that. Later on, I think it's been losing the propaganda battle. The basic perception now of the war in the West focuses very much on the hours before it started and [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili's decision to send his forces north and rather ignores the two years' worth of provocations that went before that.

And I think also, Georgia's internal politics is quite a handicap. People in the outside world are not sufficiently confident of the Georgian authorities' commitment to the rule of law and democracy. And this, to some extent, weakens the outside world's willingness to support Georgia.

RFE/RL: Mr. Mitchell, would you agree with that standpoint?

Lincoln Mitchell: I would, in general terms, agree. I think this is an interesting conflict a year later, because everybody lost something. Russia overplayed its hand, I think, by going further into Georgia, to places like Gori [and] Zugdidi. They overplayed their hand, they showed themselves to be more aggressive than they would have liked. The unilateral recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the part of Russia has not exactly been a diplomatic triumph, because countries aren't exactly standing aligned to support them in that.

On the other hand, Georgia was defeated badly. And Georgia's goals of NATO membership, any dreams of [restoring] territorial integrity, I think, have to be put back for a number of years.

Not only was Europe shown to be divided, but the United States was showing unable to help its closest ally in the region. So we, the United States, lost there as well.

RFE/RL: Could you please elaborate a bit on your remark that the U.S. lost as well? What do you mean by that?

Mitchell: What I mean is that Georgia -- particularly in the region but also globally -- is viewed as a close ally of the United States, some would say a client of the United States, and when under attack by Russia, a powerful, aggressive neighbor, a year ago, the United States couldn't or didn't really do anything.

That was obvious before the conflict that the United States could not do anything. But it really showed that to be clear that -- whatever diplomatic, political, military options we have -- we really could not stop Russia from doing this, and we couldn't help our friend.

Lucas: I think it's certainly true that American policy towards Georgia looks quite mistaken in retrospect, particularly in the months leading up to the war and after the NATO summit in Bucharest [in April 2008].

I think that the idea that Georgia was a long-term candidate for NATO membership was not terribly controversial, and it would have been good to keep that as the main focus of the Western policy while carrying on with the training and equipping of the Georgian military for tasks both in Georgia and outside. And I think the big mistake the United States made was to suddenly accelerate this and go for the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an urgent thing, without really having prepared the ground inside NATO. And then settling this rather disastrous compromise at the NATO summit in Bucharest, where the Georgian leadership felt it got a promise of NATO membership and to some extent a sort of quasi security guarantee, while at the same time sending the signal to the Russians that NATO was too divided, actually, to do anything about it. And I think the bilateral Georgian-American security relationship was not really strong enough to take the strain after that disappointment.

And it's quite interesting now to try and interpret the visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Georgia, and the remarks that are coming out about American commitment to the training and equipment of the Georgian armed forces and also the Russian objections to that -- to see whether there's a new confrontation brewing on the issue of whether America has the right to give any military assistance to Georgia even without NATO membership or is that just saber-rattling by Russia.

RFE/RL: The MAP issue is quite a controversial one in itself but some analysts argue that if Georgia were given MAP at the Bucharest summit, the war would not have occurred at all.

Lucas: It depends on what terms MAP would have been given on. MAP is quite an elastic concept. It means Membership Action Plan. And one could say this is MAP which is going to be a 10-year project, during which Georgia has some very tough reforms to make, and at the end of that we will consider whether it's ready to join NATO.

Or you could say [that] MAP is basically the waiting room and once you are in you are going to be in within a couple of years.

So these are not absolutely fixed constructs. I think [that] if the West made it really clear that it saw Georgia as a vital strategic interest from both energy and other points of view, it would be more difficult for the Russians to risk attacking it. But the West clearly wasn't sending that message. And the Georgians didn't, I think, do as much as they could have done -- particularly after the crackdown in November 2007 -- to make the West feel that that was the values-based case as well as the one based on trying to contain Russia and promote an independent energy corridor from the Caspian to Europe via Turkey.

RFE/RL: Going back to U.S.-Russia relations: The biggest and maybe even a bit overused catchphrase right now is "reset." And, of course, many analysts maintain this will be difficult, as Russia and the West have fundamentally different foreign policy conceptions. While the U.S. claims to reject the idea of "spheres of influence," Russia is operating on a 19th-century conception of power distribution, rivalry between great powers, and so on. Would you agree with this view? How realistic, do you think, will the "reset" policy be?

Mitchell: When you press the reset button on your computer, the same screen, or almost the same screen, pops up again. This is why the "reset button" is such a great metaphor -- because it does not really mean anything.

Look, the United States and Russia may not have radically different conceptions of international politics, but they do have radically different interests. We may or may not agree with the notion that Russia has an interest in Georgia; but they perceive themselves as having an interest in Georgia. The notion that the United States has interests and allies and relationships all over the world and that we have the right to have that is a bipartisan core belief throughout most of mainstream American politics. These are going to come into conflict.

One of the things the United States has to recognize, and I think the war makes this clear, is that -- like it or not -- Russia has interests and is going to act on those interests. And we need a strategy for when we are going to push back, [for] what are we going to do if we are not going to push back, and [for] what does it mean to push back.

Lucas: I think that it's a little unfair to blame diplomats for trying to find catchy metaphors. You could argue that the idea of the Iron Curtain does not really make sense. When did you last see a curtain made of iron?

And I think [that] what the American administration was quite legitimately trying to do was to try to compartmentalize the American-Russian relationship, and say that there are areas where we disagree but there are also areas where we could reach a deal and let's try and concentrate on those. And that's actually quite a subversive and provocative approach in a way, because what Russia tends to do is to say that everything is linked: You want something on this, we want something on that.

And I think it was quite a well-thought-out idea -- based on a presentational and a conceptual point of view -- to say to the Russians, "OK, guys, let's put the past deadlock behind us, we need to talk about nukes. You need to talk about nukes, actually, more than we need to talk about nukes. But let's just pretend we are both equal and talk about nukes." That is something which I do think they can now reach agreements on.

I think the question about spheres of influence and Russia's interests outside Russia is very tricky. Because it does not help Russia if we accept this idea that Russia is naturally an imperialist country. No one talks about Germany having a sphere of privileged interests in countries that were once part of the Third Reich, like Denmark or The Netherlands or [the former] Czechoslovakia. And I don't think that we should accept that Russia has a kind of Soviet imperial shadow as part of its birthrights as an independent and democratic country.

RFE/RL: But still, Mr. Lucas, Russian leaders themselves are talking about Moscow's "privileged interests" in its neighborhood, in contrast to German leaders...

Lucas: Exactly! We should make clear: That's not language that we recognize. We are absolutely in favor of talking about ecology, the power grid -- I mean there are all sorts of things which neighboring countries need to get on, but they basically get on as equals, as sovereign countries and not as part of some kind of geopolitical machinations where former imperial power threads its way throughout the smaller countries.

So I'd be very cautious about conceding anything on that idea of privileged interests, while at the same time making it very clear to all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that the United States and the West generally would like them to get along well with Russia. We are not interested in stoking new confrontations.

It does take two to tango and if Russia, for example, is cutting off the oil supply to Lithuania, as it did a couple of years ago, or engaging in other forms of economic warfare or mischief making, it's quite difficult for these countries then to approach the relationship as one between constructive-minded partners.

Moscow Muscle

RFE/RL: Let's discuss the question of recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions. Russia has not succeeded in making its allies recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- it is only Nicaragua that has followed Moscow's example so far. How would you explain this? Is this a sign that Russia's influence is somehow diminishing?

Mitchell: It's clearly a real diplomatic defeat for Russia. I suspect it is as much a case of the diminishing influence as it is of Russia not doing their diplomatic homework. If you're going to recognize independence of these two places, you have to understand that there are other countries -- and even if they, on balance, might want to be helpful to Russia, there's a lot of other politics involved here. And in any diplomatic setting, before you do something that dramatic, you have to make sure your ducks are in a row. And I suspect Russia didn't do that at all.

Lucas: I agree with that. I think it was extremely poorly thought-out, and it was a real snub that even the countries -- they took this to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, all of these slightly phony international organizations which Russia likes to think are a counterweight to Western organizations that really work. And they didn't get any support. Not even brotherly Belarus, not even Tajikistan, which is entirely dependant on Russia in all sorts of ways, were willing to support them.

But I think in the long run -- and it was a short-term tactical defeat -- but one should remember that Transdniestria isn't recognized, Nagorno-Karabakh isn't recognized, diplomatic recognition is basically a formality, a technicality, and it doesn't really make much difference. Taiwan is not recognized, and it is still very much a country. And one could argue that perhaps San Marino is diplomatically recognized, and Liechtenstein is diplomatically recognized, and they aren't really countries.

So I think it's important not to get too hung-up about these formalities but [rather] look at the real question, which is, I think, that South Ossetia genuinely is heading towards deep integration with Russia, with the consent of at least the South Ossetian political elite, if one can call it that; whereas the Abkhaz, I think, are genuinely unhappy about the idea of being swallowed up by Russia. This isn't quite what they [Abkhaz] wanted, and that creates [space] which the West could possibly exploit.

Mitchell: Nonetheless, and perhaps to add to that, even though [the breakaway regions] have not been recognized, the land grab, or the annexation -- whatever term you want to use -- [the Russians] have gotten away with that. They haven't gotten the recognition, but they have gotten away with what they did last August, for sure.

No More 'Breaks' For Russia?

RFE/RL: And yet, Mr. Lucas, you have claimed that Russia has overplayed its card, that it has become somewhat self-destructive and is now being feared and distrusted by its neighbors and also by the international community. But at least on the surface, things seem to be going back to business as usual. Relations between Russia and the EU, or NATO, the US, seem to have gone back to normal despite the fact that Russia continues to occupy large parts of Georgia's territory. Could you tell us more about the concrete effects that what you call Russia's self-destructiveness will have?

Lucas: I think in the short term, superficial sense, it is business as usual. The NATO-Russia Council is meeting again, partnership and cooperation talks are happening, Russia is not being blocked from joining the WTO, although it seems ambivalent about whether it really wants to join. The talks to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are at least in the opening phases.

But I think that there is a growing sense in Western capitals that this is not a country that you can do serious business with in the way you can do business with Brazil, India, or China. People often talk about "the BRIC-s" -- Brazil, Russia, India, and China. And I think the leadership behavior in the giving people who are not naturally sort of Russophobic, not necessarily old cold warriors, serious pause for thought.

People are worried about the corruption, worried about the way in which Russian money is slouching around in the Western financial system. They are worried about the ultimate beneficial ownership of some of these very big energy and raw materials intermediary companies, which is so active. And I think people are really disturbed by the lack of political and media freedoms in Russia, and they are gradually making it harder and harder to take the kind of naive, pro-Russian view which was very prevalent if you remember 2001, 2002, 2003.

A lot of people would say, "Look, give Putin a break, he's brought stability, he's brought prosperity. Thank goodness it's not like it was in the Yeltsin era; let's give the guy a break." I don't think people are now so willing to say, "Let's give Russia a break" -- that's something that they have lost through this behavior.

Looking Ahead

RFE/RL: How worried are you about the prospect of another conflict? Many Russian experts maintain that Moscow views last year's events as an "unfinished war" and might want to "finish the job." Do you see this as a realistic scenario?

Mitchell: There are strong incentives and disincentives on both sides that we will have another conflict. On balance, in my view, the disincentives clearly outweigh the incentives.

On the Georgian side, that's obvious that their military isn't at all ready for another conflict -- it would result in a worse defeat, conceivably a full-scale invasion and occupation, bigger than we only saw last year. For Russia, there is no real advantage to this anyway, because what they have won -- the pushing of Georgia further away from NATO; the kind of an institutionalized, low-level political instability within Georgia; the alienating of Georgia from a lot of its European friends; the rift between the U.S. and Europe in terms of the views of Georgia -- they have already won these things. A further conflict would potentially reverse some of those things, and would also show Russia once again to be...aggressive beyond a place that can just be ignored.

So I don't really see Russia as having a great deal to win by another conflict. This is not to say that they are not going to do it; because this also speaks to how policy is made in Russia, and implicit in analysis is the notion that Russia is going to act in a kind of rational geopolitical sense. But it is not for certain that that's the case. If it comes down to personality, and Putin really just wants to "go get him," he may. But I think it's unlikely.

Lucas: I don't think it is quite right to say that Russia is a rational geopolitical actor, because if it was, it would realize that its only possible place is in the West.

Mitchell: Yes, I said that it may not be.

Lucas: Imagine if you had rational leadership in Russia. They would not be picking fights with their neighbors, they'd be saying, "We need to worry about Islam, we need to worry about China, we are too weak, we cannot be like India, we can't be an independent actor in world affairs, so therefore let's just make the best deal we can with the West and get on with it." They'd be like a kind of Japan -- not geographically in the West, but orientated to it.

And I think the element we are leaving out here is Russian public opinion. And one of the big effects of the Georgian war was to stoke the popularity -- which at that time was fading a bit -- of the Putin-Medvedev team. It allowed Medvedev to look like a very war-like leader, which is very unlikely if you look at his background and personality. But anyway, he managed to fake it quite convincingly.

And I think the big worry would be if the economic downturn started biting harder in Russia, having a foreign military adventure is quite an easy way -- quite a quick way -- for the regime to get some more popularity. One always says, I think -- foreign policy and domestic policy are quite closely connected in Russia; they are in every country, but I think it's particularly true in Russia -- when they want to gain some points at home, they pick a fight with a country abroad. We saw this with Estonia, with the row [over the] soldier, we've seen this with the rows over Crimea, and Georgia of course, being a particular case there. So I think that if we do get another war in Georgia -- which I think is not probable, but is possible...

RFE/RL: Let me interrupt you there -- if another war really happens, is anything going to be different this time? Are there any lessons the world has learned, be it Georgia, Russia, or the West in general?

Mitchell: If another war happens -- if Russian tanks start rolling into Tbilisi tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow -- I think it potentially underscores how little we have been able to address these problems. The United States, the West, is still not going to be able to send the military to help Georgia. We'll still talk a lot, as we did a year ago, about how to punish Russia, how to have consequences for Russia -- if you remember a year ago, that was very much part of the dialogue, but nothing really came of it. So I think [that] in that regard the answer is "no."

Lucas: I think the West certainly could do more. There are all sorts of things that we could break off and freeze. And I do think that after the first war, it was quite symbolic that the "USS McFaul," a guided-missile destroyer, turned up in the Black Sea, which had on board enough cruise missiles to sink the entire Russian Black Sea fleet at anchor in Sevastopol. So America is still colossally bigger than Russia in conventional terms; and if the Americans wanted to send a message, it would be quite easy for them to do so, and say, "Russians, do you really want to escalate this conflict, and pull us in?"

If the Russians are absolutely determined to go ahead with it, they probably could conquer Georgia. But they would pay a very high price for it, I think.

The key thing really is what is happening domestically, inside Georgia. Because it's one thing to defend, if you like, the Estonia of the Caucasus -- if this is a country that really believes in political freedom and the rule of law, is trying to have a Euro-Atlantic orientation, and is being beaten up by its bigger neighbor -- that's one thing.

Protecting a corrupt authoritarian country which is being beaten up by another corrupt authoritarian country is rather hard to sell in Washington. So I think the best thing Georgia can do -- to make the war less likely -- is to make sure its own internal political arrangements are as clean and as impressive as possible.

No Bed Of Roses

RFE/RL: To continue on that point: The Rose Revolution, back in its heyday, was being represented -- certainly by its leaders, but also by international actors -- as a certain continuation of the Eastern European tradition of Velvet Revolutions, one of the last legacies of the Cold War era, a pro-Western democratic movement that wanted to break out from Russian domination. Many things have happened inside and around Georgia since then. Moreover, right now there is a new U.S. administration that wants to go beyond the legacies of the Cold War. How, do you think, has this narrative of the Rose Revolution transformed over the last six years? How is Georgia's story seen now, in your opinion?

Lucas: I think it is a kind of a simplistic narrative, in which you can say that what started in Prague in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution was continuing right up to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan 15 years later. And it is kind of true that these kinds of flags and candles and youthful demonstrations [were present]. But I think it's actually rather more complicated than that.

I think from the Russian point of view, the whole idea of the "color revolutions" is very threatening. They see this as basically political technologies, manipulation, with the heavy involvement of outsiders, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute. And they find that very threatening.

From a Western point of view, these revolutions have brought some very good results in the short term. The medium-term result has been that you got rid of the corrupt authoritarian regime that you didn't like -- as in [Ukraine's Leonid] Kuchma and [Georgia's Eduard] Shevardnadze. It has not necessarily brought what you did want. So I see the color revolutions as being a potentially important first step in improving a country's politics, but they don't give a definitive answer.

Mitchell: I think when you talk about the color revolutions, one of the things that are sticking is that in all three of the post-Soviet cases, you can make the argument that five years on Russia has won: Russia got what it wanted in these places. It's certainly very influential in Kyrgyzstan; Georgia is further away from NATO, is further away from regaining its territories than it was before the Rose Revolution; Ukraine is a little bit of a question mark.

I think what's happened in Georgia that's unfortunate with regard to the Rose Revolution is the fact that during the war of August 2008, support for Georgia in the West -- particularly in the U.S. -- was very much built around this narrative of Georgia as democratic David versus the kind of an authoritarian Goliath. And the problem with that is that the real issue here is sovereignty, right?

So if you link support for Georgia to Georgia being a democracy, then you make a rather obvious point: that Georgian democracy is backsliding. Then it undermines the support for Georgia. If you make the point about sovereignty, then it's easier. And the challenge for Georgia is that, you know, the current weapons deal that [U.S. Vice President Joe] Biden and Saakashvili either did or didn't discuss on the vice president's trip there is that...we don't have enough weapons to sell to Georgia -- certainly conventional weapons -- to make it able to defend itself against Russia. That's unfortunate, but that's a fact.

So for Georgia democracy -- and fulfilling the promise of the Rose Revolution -- is very much a national security strategy, because membership in NATO is linked to democratic reform. And the more Georgia doesn't do that, the easier it is for forces in NATO that, for a range of reasons, don't want Georgia in, to keep Georgia out.

The movement away from democracy in the last few years -- and I would start with that beginning in late 2007 -- is clear in Georgia. But it's not just some abstract thing of, "Oh, we all like democracy, and Georgia isn't moving that way." It really is undermining Georgia's national security right now.

Presidential Pickle

RFE/RL: Mr. Mitchell, you have been very critical of Georgia's current leadership, and recently even expressed a point that one reason -- one of the reasons -- why Saakashvili last year initiated the military action in the Tskhinvali region was to regain the popularity that he was losing domestically, within Georgia. Can you tell us more about this?

Mitchell: The rhetoric of restoring Georgia's territorial integrity is extremely important to many people in Georgia. The reality of doing it is, of course, very difficult.

But as Saakashvili -- I guess his first term, and then kind of the beginning of the second term -- wore on, some of the initial promises of the Rose Revolution weren't being fulfilled. Some of the democratic reforms, I suspect, were of interest only to elites; but the economic promise was not being met. And even though I believe Georgia made some real economic advances, the constant overselling and overpromising created a perception that these promises weren't being met.

And the decreasing popularity of Saakashvili -- a reelection where he avoids a runoff, I'll say generously, by the skin of his teeth, although others would say through other mechanisms; a parliamentary election where with enormous administrative resources on the side of the government they really only get 60 to 65 percent, even with all that. And numbers that aren't that good, this was a way to get some support.

Now what's interesting about this war in terms of public opinion in Georgia is -- as much as there's kind of a rallying-around-the-flag effect in Russia, because they had this triumphant experience -- there's a rally-around-the flag-effect -- in other words, a surge of popularity for the president and the government after the war in Georgia, even though they were defeated. So it was, in that regard, a short-term strategy for Saakashvili.

I would also add here that I don't think it was the only reason for the war. I want to be very clear on that.

And there is this tension between looking at the decisions that led to going into the war, ignoring the broader context. And that's a complicated thing, because while Saakashvili can certainly be accused legitimately of acting impulsively, of not acting with great wisdom, and of responding foolishly to provocations, which got himself in a bigger mess, Russia is guilty, in my view, of the broader mistake, or broader problem, of seeking to really weaken and destabilize an independent, sovereign country.

RFE/RL: So are you arguing that the blame for the war is to be placed upon Georgia?

Mitchell: No, what I'm arguing is that who you blame depends on when you start, right? So if you start at 36 hours before the war started, you can make the argument that the fault is Georgia's. If you start two to three years back, you can make a stronger argument that the fault for the war is Russia's. What I'm saying is that therefore there is blame on both sides.

The sin, if you will, of which Saakashvili is guilty -- acting impulsively, acting perhaps irrationally, falling into being provoked -- is less than I think what Russia is guilty of, which was a multiyear strategy to weaken and undermine a sovereign state. Nonetheless, there is enough blame to go around. And there is far less room for error on the Georgian side, because of the asymmetry of military resources.

Lucas: I agree very much that it's a national security issue for Georgia to keep itself in the category of democracies. If you think that we have countries like Azerbaijan, which the West is keen to support for reasons of energy security and because ultimately, we do believe, national sovereignty; but I think we rather shamefully refrain from making a big fuss about abuses of human rights and media freedoms and so on in Azerbaijan.

But the danger for Georgia is that it slips into that category, whereas what it should be doing is moving towards the category of being, say, like the Baltic states, which are also, in fact, militarily indefensible short of a nuclear war. NATO actually does not have any great plans to defend the Baltic States; but it just believes that by close economic and political integration in the West, we can send signal to the leadership in the Kremlin that these countries are off-limits, they are not part of the Kremlin's sphere of privileged interests.

And I think we should be aiming in the West to do the same for Georgia. But it does require effort on the Georgian side, too. I think that the other great thing is patience. We have to play quite a long game here; these things don't happen overnight. You can do very quick deals in diplomacy, but in the real world the effort has to take place over long period of time, and it does not bring very quick results.

Lessons Of War

RFE/RL: Final question to both of you: You've been following the events very closely; so how realistic, would you say, are the foreign policy expectations of Georgia's current leadership?

Lucas: One of Mr. Saakashvili's weaknesses is to believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved either by his media appearance on CNN or by a personal phone call to another foreign leader. And it's true that it is a great advantage for Georgia to have an articulate and forceful personality as the head of state. But actually what you really need to do in a position like Georgia sort out the machinery of government.

I think that the single biggest thing that Georgia could do now -- to establish its credibility and to bolster its support from the West -- will be to really show that it has learned the lessons from the war. Particularly not just the military lessons, but lessons about decision-making. How was it that these strange decisions were made in the middle of the night? How is it that Russia knew so very quickly what Georgia was planning?

It would appear to an outsider that the decision-making process is very bad, and that the penetration of Saakashvili's inner circle must be quite substantial. And I think that it's quite easy to look at the lessons learned from the war and talk about "Did we have the right kind of rockets?" It's much less glamorous but actually rather more important to look at the events a year ago and say, "Do we have the right kind of meetings?"

Mitchell: Georgia's foreign policy expectations are going to be difficult. They are in a position that what they need to do is to buy some time. And that's not what they did a year ago -- the events of a year ago actually sped up the clock rather that slowed it down. But there are a couple of things that should be kept in mind here.

One is that the concern about in Georgia that a new American administration was going to abandon Georgia -- which I think was deliberately stirred up by the government, for whatever reason -- is nonsense, and turned out to be nonsense. The relationship between Georgia and the United States goes back to the days of Presidents Shevardnadze and [Bill] Clinton. And now we have the third president since, Mr. Obama. Obviously -- or perhaps not so obviously to Georgia -- the election of Obama is an enormous advantage for Georgia, because now, instead of being kind of a favorite little country of a widely disliked -- both domestically and internationally -- American president, they are an ally of a well-respected American president, both domestically and internationally. So that alone raises their status. It does not get them into NATO, does not bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back right away, but it helps them.

The second piece of this is that whereas I would certainly agree with the comment about the immediate need to address some questions, Saakashvili is, in American terms, a lame-duck president. And the major challenges -- the two kind of twin-challenges faced in Georgia, on which all of this rests, and the success of any of this rests, and I would say the future sovereignty of the state rests -- is both the transition in 2013, a process by which Georgia has a new leader who is legitimate, democratically chosen, democratically elected, and is confident and smart and all of those things. But that's putting the cart before the horse.

The more immediate question is working on institutions and structures now to get Georgia to 2013. And that, to me, is something that can get very much overlooked in this constant noise about "Is there going to be another war?" or "Are we going to get the weapons?" [and "We are almost into NATO."

Georgia's in a position now where, in political terms, leadership and people need to go home and do their work. And when that happens, all of these foreign policy goals will move closer. But until that happens, they are going to remain distant.

Chronology Of The Russia-Georgia Conflict

Chronology Of A Conflict

One year after war broke out between Russia and Georgia, many issues remain unresolved. South Ossetia and the breakaway region of Abkhazia unilaterally declared independence, tens of thousands of Georgians are still displaced, and political tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow are simmering. Here is a look back at the key events in the conflict over the past 12 months. Play

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