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The US, Georgia, and Russia

Commentary, 12 August 2008
Europe
Unable to offer Georgia military support, the United States has been left in an uncomfortable position where it could not be seen to be abandoning one of its most important regional allies. Still worse lies ahead: it must reassure the East Europeans that the Georgia episode is not the start of a 'softer' policy towards Russia, and it may also have to rebut accusations that, through its vocal support for Georgia, it actually encouraged that country's leadership into the military adventure.

Unable to offer Georgia military support, the United States has been left in an uncomfortable position where it could not be seen to be abandoning one of its most important regional allies. Still worse lies ahead: it must reassure the East Europeans that the Georgia episode is not the start of a 'softer' policy towards Russia, and it may also have to rebut accusations that, through its vocal support for Georgia, it actually encouraged that country's leadership into the military adventure.

By Alexis Crow, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

In the middle of the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing, US President George W Bush was hurriedly summoned to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Georgia – the former Soviet republic which Bush once called a ‘beacon of democracy’ — was in the midst of heavy armed conflict with Russian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

In the next five days, the United States continually reassured Georgia that it was a staunch American ally, and demanded Russia to halt its military actions.  Yet many of these statements were guarded: Bush condemned the Russians for bombing ‘outside’ of South Ossetia, and reprimanded Russia for its ‘disproportionate response.’  Despite Bush’s insistence that he was ‘very firm’ with Putin, his statements reflect a cautious tone.  Similarly, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice balanced around ninety phone calls over the weekend in attempt to broker a cease-fire, Washington pledged humanitarian assistance to Tbilisi, but said it was not considering using military force in Georgia.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili wanted more than the US was willing to give.  In a televised address, he said, ‘We are working with an international community, but all we got so far are just words, statements, moral support, humanitarian aid…But we need more – we want them to stop this barbaric aggressor.’ Saakashvili was appealing to the West to side with Georgia in a way not unlike the Article V guarantee of the NATO treaty: this is hardly surprising given the US’s push to grant Georgia membership at the Bucharest summit only four months ago.  In the end, America’s support did not match up to Georgia’s expectations.  Even though Bush reproached Russia for invading ‘a sovereign neighbouring state’ and thus threatening a ‘democratic government elected by its people’, Georgia clearly stoked the fire by responding in kind with strong military force.

 US presidential hopefuls Senators John McCain and Barack Obama quickly issued their take on the crisis in Georgia.  McCain told Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin that Russia’s actions would have ‘severe, long-term negative consequences’ in its relations with the US and Europe.  He urged Secretary Rice to travel to Europe and create a ‘common Euro-Atlantic position aimed at ending the war and supporting the independence of Georgia.’ McCain claimed that Russia’s actions were ‘in clear violation of international law’ and had ‘no place in twenty-first century Europe.’ In a statement over the weekend, Obama also condemned Russia’s actions, and called for an immediate ceasefire.

Journalists were quick to dissect both candidates’ responses: indeed, many point to McCain’s speedy statement as a joust to the Illinois senator who was seemingly out-of-touch on a week-long holiday with his family in Hawaii.  What is interesting here is not McCain’s image projection of the ‘commander-in-chief’, but the actual substance. And here, there were some slight differences. In a supplementary statement on Monday, Obama said, ‘No matter how this conflict started, Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and has now violated the space of another country.’ Is South Ossetia not part of Georgia?  Russia and Georgia have disputed the de facto sovereignty of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for the last fifteen years, but the de jure disposition of both territories was never in doubt, not even by Russia itself.  By creating such a distinction between Georgia and South Ossetia, Obama ironically ends up sounding like President Bush, who demanded Russia stop bombing ‘outside’ of South Ossetia. McCain, on the other hand, made no such distinction in his claim that Russia has ‘violated Georgia’s sovereignty’.

The Bush administration will have a lot of work in the coming months as a result of the conflict in the Caucasus. Not only must the US reassure Georgia of the sincerity of its support, but it will presumably find itself scrambling to restore confidence in its eastern European allies which took a visibly strong stance against Russia with Tbilisi. Washington may also find itself at odds with ‘old’ Europe in its bid to offer Georgia NATO membership.

For the situation has now changed drastically. If Georgia formally agrees to the Russian terms offered by President Medvedev, its hopes to become a NATO member are likely to be very scant. However if Georgia’s membership application is allowed to proceed, some Europeans believe it is almost inevitable that they be drawn into conflict with Russia in accordance with Article V. Moreover, to make matters more complicated, if NATO does nothing, it could stand accused of bowing to Russian 'blackmail'.

Thus, from the start of the crisis, the US was in a lose-lose situation: it would not risk engagement in military action against Russia, and so Georgia lost its faith in the viability of American support. Now Washington is in a diplomatic quandary with its European allies, and it remains to be seen how the Bush administration will approach it.

One thing is, however, clear. In the coming months, the US will probably have to defend itself against claims that by championing the cause of Georgia, it somehow provoked the conflict with Russia. 

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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