Friday, August 15, 2008

Russia Learns A Lesson, But Was It The Right Lesson?

In the last few days, the diplomatic wires have been burning up as US officials warn Russia about possible consequences of the invasion of Georgia. SecState Rice is in Tbilisi working on the details of the ceasefire and trying to get Russian troops out of Georgia. President Bush referred to Russia's actions as "bullying and intimidation," warned of as-of-yet unspecified consequences, and wondered, perhaps tellingly, what the G-7 would do about the invasion. SecDef Gates warned that “Russia’s behavior over the past week has called into question the entire premise of that dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally and with NATO. If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.”

So, what did Russia learn from all of these warnings and blustering. Apparently, not much. Despite the signing of a cease-fire, Russian armored vehicles were, as of Friday night in Georgia, moving towards the capital city of Tbilisi, seizing a village about 15 miles out of town. Russian troops also moved west through Georgia, to the town of Abasha, although they seem to have withdrawn. Most concerning, however, was Russia's reaction to the signing of a deal to place a ballistic missile defense system in Poland. A senior Russian defense official lashed out at the move, saying that "cannot go unpunished." This, of course, is of direct and immediate concern to the US. Not only is Poland a member of NATO, but the deal ties the US closer to Poland than ever before:

In exchange for providing the base, Poland would get what the two sides called “enhanced security cooperation,” notably a top-of-the-line Patriot air defense system that can shoot down shorter-range missiles or attacking fighters or bombers.

A senior Pentagon official described an unusual part of this quid pro quo: an American Patriot battery would be moved from Germany to Poland, where it would be operated by a crew of about 100 American military personnel members. The expenses would be shared by both nations. American troops would join the Polish military, at least temporarily, at the front lines — facing east toward Russia.


the United States would be obliged to defend Poland in case of an attack with greater speed than required under NATO, of which Poland is a member.

Polish officials said the agreement would strengthen the mutual commitment of the United States to defend Poland, and vice versa. “Poland and the Poles do not want to be in alliances in which assistance comes at some point later — it is no good when assistance comes to dead people,” the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, said on Polish television. “Poland wants to be in alliances where assistance comes in the very first hours of — knock on wood — any possible conflict.”

Would Russia really attack Poland if such an attack risks bringing NATO into the fight? If Russia does attack Poland, would the US go to war to defend its new ally, if that war was against a military power (fading though it is) like Russia?

Certainly, the failure of the West to come to Georgia's aid has emboldened Russia, as has the to-date unwillingness to set out any punishment. But Poland and Eastern Europe are a different story from Georgia. America's credibility, alliance structure, and policies of engagement and enlargement depend on the expansion of NATO and the US's ability to protect its allies. The US cannot fail to protect Poland, even if that means going to war with Russia. Such a war would, hopefully, remain limited (this isn't the Cold War, after all, and Russia doesn't see its interest or sphere of influence as global). But if Russia seeks such a war, it would be far too damaging to American long-term interests not to fight. Which means that the US must be willing to engage in high-stakes brinksmanship to ensure that such a war does not happen and that Russia knows that the US will go to war to defend its NATO ally.

All of these events have the realists waving their "told you so" signs about the dangers of NATO expansion. For realists, the end of the Cold War signaled the end of NATO's relevance; it makes no sense, they argue, to antagonize Russia over Georgia, Ukraine, or Poland. Russia has a legitimate security concern in Eastern Europe, the US does not. Thus, NATO should not push towards Russia's western border.

As I have argued many many times on these pages, the US should not, and does not, understand its interests along the narrow lines outlined by realists. It's not all about power. The problems in Georgia do not represent a victory for realism; they do expose the difficulties in advancing an agenda of engagement and enlargement. If Georgia had been admitted into NATO, Russia's decision to invade would have been made in a very different strategic environment.

US hegemony and leadership has moved much of the world further away from war than it has ever been. But that program requires constant maintenance, and comes at a high cost. The US must not shirk its duty here. President Bush should immediately make it clear that Poland is a member of NATO, and that the US and all NATO members will, if need be, fulfill their obligations to Poland. Then, as soon as possible, a nominal number of US troops should be rushed to Poland, to make a credible demonstration of US will and intent. Russia clearly feels emboldened and empowered by the west's debacle in Georgia. But Russian interests must be put back in their place.


TSM said...


I also thought it was telling that President Bush said, "G7" in his speech today.

As you have talked about many times before, many of today’s crisis involve the US simply because, ‘who else is able to accomplish much?’

My question is: What do you think the EU's position should be in all of this?

Travis B said...

Russian interests must be put back in their place?

What place might that be? Your arrogance is simply breathtaking.

Condoleezza Rice is in Tbilisi so she and the Americans can be seen to have had something to do with the deal worked out between Sarkozy and President Medvedev.

"She (Rice) will be taking a certain number of documents that will make it possible to consolidate the ceasefire," Sarkozy told reporters after meeting Rice at the French president's summer residence. Rice made the stop on her way to Georgia, where she is due to meet President Mikheil Saakashvili.

"If tomorrow Mr Saakashvili signs the document that we have negotiated with (Russian President) Mr (Dmitry) Medvedev, then the withdrawal of Russian troops can begin," Sarkozy said.

Condoleezza Rice, the 'Russia expert', gets to play gopher for the French and Russians.

You want to incorporate the Ukraine into NATO when they have Russian naval bases on Ukrainian territory. What does NATO do if they decide in 2017, when the present agreement runs out, not to leave? The Crimea wants to be part of Russia and Russia may find it in her interest to back such bid. They simply claim the naval bases are in fact on Russian soil. What does NATO do then? Attack the bases?

You seem to think that bluff and bluster will carry the day, and the hour when we must put up or shut up will never come upon us. What if we had given Georgia NATO membership and Saakashvili had attacked South Ossetia in the same manner as a NATO member? Do you really think that NATO would survive such a debacle? What could NATO have done to save Georgia then? Would Turkey be willing to go to war with Russia for Saakashvili? Would other NATO members go to war for a halfwit?

The likely outcome of such a scenario would be the collapse of NATO.

Matt said...


Would you be at all interested in exchanging links?

I've got a new site:

I've already linked to S.D. - I'd be honoured if the links flowed both ways.


Seth Weinberger said...


Happy to blogroll you!