In Georgia and Russia, a Perfect Brew for a Blowup
By C. J. CHIVERS, New York Times
August 10, 2008
As the bloody military mismatch between Russia and Georgia unfolded over the past three days, even the main players were surprised by how quickly small border skirmishes slipped into a conflict that threatened the Georgian government and perhaps the country itself.
Several American and Georgian officials said that unlike when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a move in which Soviet forces were massed before the attack, the nation had not appeared poised for an invasion last week. As late as Wednesday, they said, Russian diplomats had been pressing for negotiations between Georgia and South Ossetia, the breakaway region where the combat flared and then escalated into full-scale war.
"It doesn’t look like this was premeditated, with a massive staging of equipment," one senior American official said. "Until the night before the fighting, Russia seemed to be playing a constructive role."
But while the immediate causes and the intensity of the Russian invasion had caught Georgia and the Western foreign policy establishment by surprise, there had been signs for years that Georgia and Russia had methodically, if quietly, prepared for conflict.
Several other long-term factors had also contributed to the possibility of war. They included the Kremlin’s military successes in Chechnya, which gave Russia the latitude and sense of internal security it needed to free up troops to cross its borders, and the exuberant support of the United States for President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, a figure loathed by the Kremlin on both personal and political terms.
Moreover, by preparing Georgian soldiers for duty in Iraq, the United States appeared to have helped embolden Georgia, if inadvertently, to enter a fight it could not win.
American officials and a military officer who have dealt with Georgia said privately that as a result, the war risked becoming a foreign policy catastrophe for the United States, whose image and authority in the region were in question after it had proven unable to assist Georgia or to restrain the Kremlin while the Russian Army pressed its attack.
Russia’s bureaucratic and military groundwork was laid even before Mr. Saakashvili came to power in 2004 and positioned himself as one of the world’s most strident critics of the Kremlin.
Under the presidency of Vladimir V. Putin, Russia had already been granting citizenship and distributing passports to virtually all of the adult residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the much larger separatist region where Russia had also massed troops over the weekend. The West had been skeptical of the validity of Russia’s handing out passports by the thousands to citizens of another nation.
"Having a document does not make you a Russian citizen," one American diplomat said in 2004, as Russia expanded the program.
But whatever the legal merits, the Kremlin had laid the foundation for one of its public relations arguments for invading: its army was coming to the aid of Russian citizens under foreign attack.
In the ensuing years, even as Russia issued warnings, Mr. Saakashvili grew bolder. There were four regions out of Georgian control when he took office in 2004, but he restored two smaller regions, Ajaria in 2004 and the upper Kodori Gorge in 2006, with few deaths.
The victories gave him a sense of momentum. He kept national reintegration as a central plank of his platform.
Russia, however, began retaliating against Georgia in many ways. It cut off air service and mail between the countries, closed the border and refused Georgian exports. And by the time the Kodori Gorge was back in Georgian control, Russia had also consolidated its hold over Chechnya, which is now largely managed by a local leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his Kremlin-backed Chechen forces.
Chechnya had for years been the preoccupation of Russian ground forces. But Mr. Kadyrov’s strength had enabled Russian to garrison many of its forces and turn its attention elsewhere.
Simultaneously, as the contest of wills between Georgia and Russia intensified, the strong support of the United States for Mr. Saakashvili created tensions within the foreign policy establishment in Washington and created rival views.
Some diplomats considered Mr. Saakashvili a politician of unusual promise, someone who could reorder Georgia along the lines of a Western democracy and become a symbol of change in the politically moribund post-Soviet states. Mr. Saakashvili encouraged this view, framing himself as a visionary who was leading a column of regional democracy movements.
Other diplomats worried that both Mr. Saakashvili’s persona and his platforms presented an implicit challenge to the Kremlin, and that Mr. Saakashvili made himself a symbol of something else: Russia’s suspicion about American intentions in the Kremlin’s old empire. They worried that he would draw the United States and Russia into arguments that the United States did not want.
This feeling was especially true among Russian specialists, who said that, whatever the merits of Mr. Saakashvili’s positions, his impulsiveness and nationalism sometimes outstripped his common sense.
The risks were intensified by the fact that the United States did not merely encourage Georgia’s young democracy, it helped militarize the weak Georgian state.
In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first he had almost nothing practical to offer. Georgia’s military was small, poorly led, ill-equipped and weak.
But Mr. Saakashvili’s rise coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia’s forces from bottom to top.
At senior levels, the United States helped rewrite Georgian military doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle.
Georgia, meanwhile, began re-equipping its forces with Israeli and American firearms, reconnaissance drones, communications and battlefield-management equipment, new convoys of vehicles and stockpiles of ammunition.
The public goal was to nudge Georgia toward NATO military standards. Privately, Georgian officials welcomed the martial coaching and buildup, and they made clear that they considered participation in Iraq as a sure way to prepare the Georgian military for "national reunification" - the local euphemism of choice for restoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control.
All of these policies collided late last week. One American official who covers Georgian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity while the United States formulates its next public response, said that everything had gone wrong.
Mr. Saakashvili had acted rashly, he said, and had given Russia the grounds to invade. The invasion, he said, was chilling, disproportionate and brutal, and it was grounds for a strong censure. But the immediate question was how far Russia would go in putting Georgia back into what it sees as Georgia’s place.
There was no sign throughout the weekend of Kremlin willingness to negotiate. A national humiliation was under way.
"The Georgians have lost almost everything," the official said. "We always told them, ‘Don’t do this because the Russians do not have limited aims.’ "