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Interview: With The 2008 Georgia War, 'We Knew What Was Coming, But We Were Slow To Believe It'

A column of Russian armored vehicles is seen on its way to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on August 9, 2008.
A column of Russian armored vehicles is seen on its way to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on August 9, 2008.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service spoke to Daniel Fried, a former U.S. diplomat with over 40 years of experience serving in senior posts under several U.S. presidents. Colleagues describe him as a pragmatist who led efforts to work with Russia as a White House aide under Bill Clinton after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and later when serving under George W. Bush.

Fried was serving as the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasia affairs in August 2008 when Russia launched its invasion of Georgia. In candid remarks, Fried says what he thinks the Obama administration got wrong -- namely its attempt in 2009 and 2010 to "reset" relations with Russia -- and what it got right -- providing diplomatic and other support to Georgia that was crucial for the survival of its statehood.

RFE/RL: What is the latest impact of the 2008 war, both for Georgia and the larger world?

Daniel Fried: Russia attempted to intimidate Georgia through a war and give itself the ability to continue to intimidate Georgia by manipulating the situation at the borders. But Georgia, because it fought so well during those five days, maintained its independence. [Former Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili didn't fall, he lost an election later and left power peacefully. With U.S. help, Georgia maintained its independence. Right after the war we helped organize an international donors conference which gave over $4 billion to the Georgian economy, which was enough to keep them afloat. So, Georgia maintained its independence, but it lost territory.

But Georgia's geography is not great, and Russia has the ability to continue to intimidate Georgia. But the problem, of course, is that the current Georgian government does seem frightened or pretends to be frightened of what the Russians can do. But I don't want to be harsh, because Russia is an aggressive power and Georgia is in a vulnerable position.

But internationally, [then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin got away with it. And I say that without pride or pleasure. The Bush administration after the war understood that its policy of reaching out to Putin had failed.... But it meant that Putin got away with it. And then six years later, in 2014, he attacks Ukraine, thinking he can get away with it.

RFE/RL: What did the 2008 war mean for you? How did it impact you both professionally and personally?

Fried: All of us who were involved in U.S. policy toward Georgia and Russia remember every hour of every day of that war. I remember speaking on the phone to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister [Grigory] Karasin. I remember speaking to [former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice. I remember the trip she took in July 2008 to Tbilisi and what she said to Saakashvili. I remember the discussions I had with Eka Tkeshelashvili, Georgian foreign minister, on Thursday afternoon (August 7, the day the war started).

Daniel Fried was serving as the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasia affairs in August 2008 when Russia launched its invasion of Georgia.
Daniel Fried was serving as the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasia affairs in August 2008 when Russia launched its invasion of Georgia.

I remember, you know, the images of the Russian tanks rolling through. I remember the trip to Tbilisi, but first [I went] to southern France, to work with the French on improving their not terribly good six-point peace plan. I remember being on the phone with the French national-security adviser while I was in the room with Rice and Saakashvili talking about the same thing.

So, I remember it very well. It meant in a larger sense that Putin was willing to go to war to defend his version of the Russian Empire. It's a lesson we have all learned with respect to Ukraine, but we learned it first with Georgia.

RFE/RL: When you look back now, do you have any regrets? What, if anything, could have been handled differently?

Fried: Sure. I think we were right in the run-up to the war to be worried, but we weren't worried enough. I'll give you a specific example of exactly what I mean.

So, I was the assistant secretary for Europe. The next person up the chain was Undersecretary [of State for Political Affairs] Bill Burns. He's now head of the CIA. Condi Rice told me that she wanted Bill Burns to go to Berlin and confer with the Germans and talk to the Russians to head off the war.

In retrospect, she was late. We should have escalated sooner than we did. We knew what was coming. But we were a little bit slow to quite believe it. I'll give you another example. We didn't think the war would actually happen. People were going on summer vacations.

RFE/RL: Would it be harsh to say that Washington didn't take the threat of a Russian invasion seriously enough?

Fried: Georgia has suffered. I'm not going to criticize the way [Georgians] criticize us. You have every right to be critical. And the United States was right, but we were too slow. We were at a five or a six; we should have been at a nine, you know, on an urgency scale. Part of the problem was that the U.S. analytic community didn't think Russia would attack; they kept saying they would not attack.

RFE/RL: Why was that?

Fried: Because they just lacked imagination. They couldn't quite understand that Putin really was an aggressor. So basically, I remember on Monday (August 4), at the senior staff meeting, I say to Condi Rice: "I have a very bad feeling about this week, things are not going well. Putin could attack." She didn't disbelieve me.... So, if you're Condi Rice, you've got Dan Fried, who says it, but you know, do you believe that?

RFE/RL: It was your gut feeling, so to speak?

Fried: It was my gut feeling. But even I didn't take it seriously enough to stay home. Because we thought there'd been crises before, there had been a lot of them. And we thought this was another crisis, where the Russians were trying to intimidate Georgia, but they wouldn't attack.

Now, I don't want to be too hard on us. After all, President Bush, in the end, probably convinced Putin to pull back. You remember, we sent planes to fly the Georgian 1st Brigade back from Iraq, and ships. I remember we informed the Russians that we were flying them because we didn't want them surprised. We wanted them to know what we were doing. And they said they couldn't guarantee the safety of our aircraft, which was a veiled threat. And we basically said to them, "We're going in anyway." And they backed off.

You remember, the war starts Thursday night (August 7), and on Monday (August 11), the Russian tanks are rolling. And the Georgian lines had broken and the Georgian Army is in retreat, and it looked like they (the Russians) would move on to Tbilisi.

In fact, [U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John] Tefft, we were having multiple calls a day, and Tefft said, "Dan, you realize, don't you, where the embassy is?" Of course, they're on the main road north of Tbilisi. And he said, "The Russian Army could be here tonight." And he was absolutely calm. He was absolutely focused and understood what was happening.

Matthew Bryza, my deputy who had flown out to Tbilisi, he was in the presidential palace with [then-Swedish Foreign Minister] Carl Bildt. They thought it could be attacked, but they weren't going to leave, they were just going to stay there. They had to show personal solidarity, which actually took some courage because that would have been an early target and they didn't care.

RFE/RL: Some analysts have claimed that President Saakashvili was "provoked" by Russia in 2008. Do you think that's a fair assessment, especially given Russia's full invasion now of Ukraine?

Fried: Putin wanted his war against Ukraine. And even though the U.S. successfully exposed all of Putin's provocations, he went in anyway. And you're probably thinking, well, the same is true in Georgia, Putin would have gone in anyway and you're right. So, to blame Saakashvili and say, well, he fell for the provocations, therefore the war is his fault is nonsense. Putin would have gone in anyway.

The Russian proxy forces were shelling Georgian villages. But we did warn Saakashvili in advance not to move. Condi Rice did it when we were in Tbilisi in July [2008]. I did it that very day. But I understand that they were sort of provoked, and let's just stipulate that Putin would have attacked anyway.

But the problem is that you had the Germans and the French able to blame Saakashvili and half-excuse Putin. And their reaction to the Russo-Georgian war was much weaker than to the Russo-Ukrainian war.... But let's be clear where responsibility lies for this war -- it is Vladimir Putin. Let's be clear about that.

RFE/RL: In an interview exactly one year ago, you said that the West was not united enough back then, so it opted for economic assistance, as opposed to imposing sanctions on Russia. In hindsight, was that the right decision, or the only realistic one?

Fried: It would have been better to impose sanctions. But two problems: one, we weren't as smart about sanctions, not yet. We learned how to do sanctions against Iran, after 2008. We got a lot smarter. And then we applied them against Russia.

So, one, we weren't as smart. And two, we would never have had consensus. The Germans and French would not have supported [it] and had we tried, we would have lost. It would have been like the [2008] Bucharest [NATO] summit (where the military alliance did not invite Ukraine and Georgia to progress to Membership Action Plans (MAPs.)) Losing the fight on a MAP -- and we would have lost again twice in one year. That would have been bad.

So, do I regret we didn't do sanctions? Sure. In retrospect, should we have done them? Sure. But there were hurdles that we couldn't get over.

RFE/RL: Speaking of the French, how wise was it for Paris to be in a leading negotiating role in 2008, especially in light of recent efforts of French President Emmanuel Macron to engage Putin over Ukraine?

Fried: Well, look, I remember when we were in the south of France and taking a look at the six-point cease-fire that Sarkozy had negotiated in the presidency of the EU. You probably know the details of the problem with the map and that the line of Russian control bisected Georgia. It was a mess. So, Condi [Rice] turns to me and says: "The French invented cartography. Didn't anybody read a map?" Which is her version of being really angry.

Sarkozy's six-point plan needed to be fixed. But we can't blame him or the French, because had the plan been better, it might not have made a difference. The Minsk accords (the international agreements that attempted to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine) had their faults, but they were much better actually than the six- point plan. But you'll notice that Putin did not respect the Minsk accords. He twisted them, he projected onto them the meaning that they didn't have and waited for people to accept his nonsense interpretation.... The flaws were not critical because Putin would have ignored a better document anyway. The document stopped the fighting, which is what Putin wanted to do.

RFE/RL: The U.S. "reset" policy with Russia was initiated in 2009, months after the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Was that a naive decision or wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration?

Fried: Look, Mike McFaul (at the time a senior White House adviser) was the architect of the reset. And we had a conversation. I know him and I respect him. And by the way, just in case, to understand where Mike's coming from, take a look at his testimony from the fall of 2008 that we both gave. He was working for Obama; the election hadn't happened. And a lot of the Obama people were very critical of Bush's handling of Georgia, and half of them sort of believed the war was [Vice President] Dick Cheney's fault and he had egged on Saakashvili and some nonsense. Mike McFaul was the foreign policy person. And his testimony to the Senate, about the Georgian war, was identical to mine. He blamed Putin, he didn't hold back.

So, he tried, he comes up with the reset. And we had a conversation about this when I was still in my old job. And I said, "Look, Mike, I know why you're trying to do it." And politically, the Obama people are going to say, they think that Bush was clumsy and aggressive, and so we can do it better. We can do it better.

And I said to him: "I know why you're doing it. And I'm not going to trash you for it. I'm not going to attack you because you're doing it for the same reasons we did it. But let me tell you something, you'll fail for the same reasons we fail. Because Putin's terms for a better relationship you won't be able to accept any more than for a week."

And he didn't argue with me. He understood my point and later, he admitted that I had been right. So, he tries for the reset. And [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton was willing to give it a try. It was sort of a prophetic moment when the word for "reset" was misspelled.

This is an abridged version of the interview and has been edited for length and clarity.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.