BUSH AIDES SAY RUSSIA ACTIONS IN GEORGIA JEOPARDIZE TIES
By Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker
New York Times
August 15, 2008
WASHINGTON -- Russia’s military offensive into Georgia has jolted the Bush administration’s relationship with Moscow, senior officials said Thursday, forcing a wholesale reassessment of American dealings with Russia and jeopardizing talks on everything from halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions to reducing strategic arsenals to cooperation on missiles defenses.
The conflict punctuated a stark turnabout in the administration’s view of Vladimir V. Putin, the president turned prime minister whom President Bush has repeatedly described as a trustworthy friend. Now Mr. Bush’s aides complain that Russian officials have been misleading or at least evasive about Russia’s intentions in Georgia.
Even as the conflict between Russia and Georgia appeared to ease on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said the Russian attack had forced a fundamental rethinking of the administration’s effort to forge “an ongoing and long-term strategic dialogue with Russia.”
“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,” Mr. Gates said at the Pentagon. “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.”
The unspoken new danger is that a cooling relationship could cost the administration any hope of working closely with Russia on some of its topmost priorities, like controlling nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism, or resolving the problems of the Middle East.
If Russia and the United States rarely have acted as allies during Mr. Bush’s presidency, they also have rarely allowed disagreements to undermine what Mr. Bush considered one of his bedrock diplomatic relationships. After their first meeting in 2001, Mr. Bush said famously that he had looked into the eyes of Mr. Putin and “got a sense of his soul.”
Mr. Bush has pursued policies that Mr. Putin vigorously opposed, including supporting the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, a Russian ally, expanding NATO to include some former Soviet bloc nations, and stationing elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
But the two worked closely together to battle terrorism. Administration officials said Mr. Putin generally cooperated in efforts to curtail nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
Only four months ago, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin met in Sochi, the Russian resort only miles from Georgia, and signed a “framework agreement” that pledged cooperation on a variety of diplomatic and security matters and declared that “the era in which the United States and Russia considered one another an enemy or strategic threat has ended.” Mr. Gates, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveled twice to Moscow in the past year for discussions on that agreement, which has now been overshadowed by the war and appears unlikely to progress any time soon, if ever.
One of the main goals of those talks -- to assuage Russia’s concerns about a network of missile defenses -- appeared even less likely on Thursday after Poland and the United States announced an agreement to deploy a battery of American missile interceptors on Polish territory, a step Russia has repeatedly denounced as provocative.
Mr. Bush has not directly addressed his relationship with Mr. Putin or his successor, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, and his aides declined on Thursday to discuss his personal views. But he has bluntly warned Russia that it risked losing its international standing.
After postponing a trip to his ranch in Texas by a day, Mr. Bush went to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., for a briefing on the situation in Georgia.
“Got a lot of folks, smart folks, analyzing the situation on the ground and, of course, briefing us on different possibilities that could develop in the area and the region,” he said, flanked by the agency’s director, Michael V. Hayden, and his deputy, Stephen R. Kappes.
He reiterated his call “for the territorial integrity of Georgia to be respected and the cease-fire agreement to be honored.”
Both Georgia and Russia took steps back from open conflict on Thursday, with Russia largely ending air operations over Georgia and preparing to withdraw at least some of the troops its had moved inside the country, Mr. Gates said.
But the issue of Georgia’s territorial integrity appeared increasingly uncertain after Mr. Medvedev met with the leaders of two separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. His foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, declared that Georgia “can forget about” reclaiming sovereignty over the regions.
Mr. Bush rescheduled his departure for Texas for Friday. Ms. Rice, he said, would brief him after returning from a trip to France and Georgia intended to show American support for Georgia’s shaken president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
For a second day, an American C-17 cargo plane arrived in Georgia bearing relief supplies, encountering no interference from Russian forces. Mr. Bush ordered the military-run operation on Wednesday, setting up what administration officials described as a direct challenge to Russia to keep its promise to allow humanitarian aid. A small team of Pentagon officials arrived to assess how best to funnel relief supplies to those wounded or displaced by the conflict.
Mr. Gates and Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing that American forces had the right to self-defense but that said he did not anticipate that they would have to resort to force to distribute the medicine and shelters.
Mr. Gates stressed that he was not predicting a return to the Cold War, and he said that over all the United States response to the crisis had been restrained.
“The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia,” Mr. Gates said. “I see no reason to change that approach today.”
Mr. Gates is one of the administration’s experts on Soviet and Russian policies and previously served as the director of central intelligence while spending his career studying the Kremlin and its efforts to exert influence around the world.
“What happens in the days and months to come will determine the future course of U.S.-Russian relations,” he said. “But by the same token, my personal view is that there needs to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state.”
The United States has already canceled outright or withdrawn from several military exercises that were to have included Russian forces in the coming days, the first concrete, punitive steps taken by the administration. In addition, Mr. Gates said, the Defense Department “will re-examine the entire gamut of our military-to-military activities with Russia and will make changes as necessary and appropriate, depending on Russian actions in the days ahead.”
The Russian government unleashed its military into Georgia to accomplish two goals, Mr. Gates said: to punish Georgia for trying to integrate with the West and to warn other nations in the former Soviet sphere of influence against closer ties with Washington and its NATO allies.
“My view is that the Russians -- and I would say principally Prime Minister Putin -- is interested in reasserting Russia’s, not only Russia’s great power or superpower status, but in reasserting Russia’s traditional spheres of influence,” he said. “My guess is that everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we look ahead.”
Mr. Gates’s remarks, while critical of Mr. Putin, also included an implicit rebuke of any effort to base American policy solely on a perceived friendship within the Kremlin. At the Pentagon, Mr. Gates was asked whether he trusted Mr. Putin anymore, and he paused before responding.
“‘Anymore’ is an interesting add,” he said. “I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.”
RUSSIA'S LOSING PROPAGANDA WAR
By Paul Reynolds
August 15, 2008
The Bush administration appears to be trying to turn a failed military operation by Georgia into a successful diplomatic operation against Russia.
It is doing so by presenting the Russian actions as aggression and playing down the Georgian attack into South Ossetia on 7 August, which triggered the Russian operation.
Yet the evidence from South Ossetia about that attack indicates that it was extensive and damaging.
The BBC's Sarah Rainsford has reported: "Many Ossetians I met both in Tskhinvali and in the main refugee camp in Russia are furious about what has happened to their city.
"They are very clear who they blame: Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sent troops to re-take control of this breakaway region."
Human Rights Watch concluded after an on-the-ground inspection: "Witness accounts and the timing of the damage would point to Georgian fire accounting for much of the damage described [in Tskhinvali]."
One problem for the Russians is that they have not yet learned how to play the media game. Their authoritarian government might never do so.
Most of the Western media is based in Georgia. The Russians were slow to give access from their side and this has helped them lose the propaganda war.
Georgia, meanwhile, was comparing this to Prague in 1968 and Budapest in 1956. Even the massacre at Srebrenica was recalled.
The comparisons did not fit the facts, but some of the mud has stuck and Russia has been on the international defensive.
The visit by the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Georgia is a signal of support for Mr Saakashvili.
Significantly, she is not paying a matching visit to Moscow but will return directly to the United States where she will brief President George W Bush in Texas.
She has refused to condemn Georgia and barely acknowledged Russia's point that it had to protect its peacekeeping forces (a battalion-sized unit allowed in South Ossetia along with Georgian and North Ossetian and South Ossetian forces under a 1992 agreement).
Instead she blamed Russia for widening the conflict by bombing beyond what the 1992 deal called the "zone of conflict" in South Ossetia.
She said: "This is something that, had it been about South Ossetia, could have been resolved within certain limits.
"Russian peacekeepers were in the area; that is true. And Russia initially said it needed to act to protect its peacekeepers and its people.
"But what Russia has done is well beyond anything that anyone could say is for the protection of those people and for those peacekeepers."
The Americans have sent in planes full of humanitarian aid, again a symbol of support.
But they have sent no military supplies. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said: "I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough?"
U.S. diplomacy is also concentrating on the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity -- which means that South Ossetia and the other restless region, Abkhazia, must remain within Georgian borders. Russian has questioned this.
This widens the whole question into one of Russian behavior generally, which is much surer ground for the Bush administration. The U.S. will continue to press for eventual Georgian and Ukrainian membership of NATO.
The Republican presidential hopeful Senator John McCain also sees in this conflict an opportunity to put Russia in the dock, declaring: "We are all Georgians now."
All this is likely to anger Moscow, which will feel that it has a case and that it is being ignored. Right from the start it said that the operation was not an invasion.
The adverse effect on U.S.-Russia relations, about which Mr. Gates warned, is going to be a two-way process.
There are signs, though, that there is some sympathy for Russia within the European Union -- although not among the Eastern European states who still fear Russia and not in the British government, which has matched the U.S. line about Russian "aggression."
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeing Russian leaders and while she too will urge them not to challenge borders, the German government has been notably reluctant to blame Russia.
CRISIS IN GEORGIA: HOW MICHA MESSED UP
By Mark MacKinnon
** Why on earth did Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili provoke this week's conflict and rekindle Russian expansionism? **
Globe and Mail (Canada) August 15, 2008
As fighting raged all over his tiny former Soviet country this week, a CNN anchor asked Georgia's brash and unpredictable President Mikhail Saakashvili whether he had believed his country could actually win a military showdown with Russia. "I'm not crazy," the President answered in his American-inflected English.
Others weren't so sure. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev charged that Mr. Saakashvili had acted like a "lunatic" in provoking the conflict and said he needed to be removed from office. A French diplomat suggested Mr. Saakashvili had been mad to take on Russia, and American officials wondered how he could have so badly misread their signals calling for restraint in his efforts to reclaim the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Many of his own people are shaking their heads at how "Misha," as he is affectionately known, could have backed their country into such a dangerous corner.
It was on Monday afternoon in the tree-lined city of Gori that Mr. Saakashvili came face to face with the scale of the error he made in attacking South Ossetia and triggering war with Russia, Georgia's giant neighbor to the north.
Sporting a green camouflage flak jacket, he was preparing to address the international media when Russian jets suddenly roared overhead. Someone in his entourage shouted, "Air! Air!" and Mr. Saakashvili looked at the sky, then broke into a sprint. Eventually he dove for cover, his bodyguards piling on top, hoping to shield their President from shrapnel.
Many bombs fell in and around Gori -- the geographic heart of this strikingly beautiful country on the southeastern edge of Europe -- and none came close to hurting him.
But the video of him ducking and running may prove to be the bookend to a tumultuous political career that began five years ago with another famous image: Mr. Saakashvili striding into Georgia's Soviet-era parliament building clutching a rose, at the vanguard of a democratic revolution that was supposed to remake not only his own tiny country but the entire former USSR.
Even if he remains in office after this crisis, the era of hope, democracy, and pro-Western reform that Mr. Saakashvili -- still boyish-looking at 40 -- was supposed to herald has ended. The moment he ordered his troops to attack the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali a week ago, Georgia once more became a failed state, a place where wars, coups, and instability are the norm and one that Western investors would be wise to avoid.
Georgia's loss is Russia's gain. Moscow is once again emerging as the regional hegemon, on the verge of pushing the U.S. back out of the former Soviet Union, an area Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calls "the near abroad." The leaders of Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all former Soviet republics, rushed to stand with Mr. Saakashvili in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi this week in what was as much a demonstration of fear as it was of solidarity. They were joined by the President of Poland, another country that remembers when the Red Army regularly ranged far beyond its borders and thus fears Russia's resurgence.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is probably the most concerned member of the quintet. While Poland and the Baltic states are under the protective umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Ukraine is not. Along with Georgia's, its application to join NATO was shelved back in April for fear of offending Russia, which considers both states to be properly part of its "sphere of influence."
It all makes Mr. Saakashvili's decision to attack last Friday -- while the world was distracted by the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games -- extremely difficult to understand. In the name of "reuniting" Georgia, which has never been united since it gained independence in 1991, hundreds of people are dead (each side accuses the other of ethnic cleansing) and Georgia's sovereignty is under renewed threat.
As the sound of gunfire recedes, questions about Mr. Saakashvili's judgment -- and his ability to continue governing -- are growing louder.
YOUNG AND RESTLESS
Mr. Saakashvili has always been bold, daring, and idealistic. Born into a family of Tbilisi intelligentsia in the Soviet period, he was a member of the generation who grew up as the Communist bloc was crumbling and the Soviet Union was splitting apart. What had seemed eternal suddenly disappeared and the old rules vanished, providing an opportunity for his generation -- less indoctrinated than its elders -- to write new ones.
Even though he had grown up in the USSR, [been] born in Leonid Brezhnev's time, and gone to school in Mikhail Gorbachev's, Mr. Saakashvili was never going to be the homo sovieticus the Russian leaders tried to create. At one of our meetings, he told me that he took particular relish in being interviewed by the Globe and Mail, since it was the first foreign newspaper he had ever read after discovering copies of it in the library of Kiev University, where he studied international law in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He surreptitiously read every page, soaking up information usually blocked by the Soviet censors.
After the Soviet Union fell apart and Georgia became an independent state, Mr. Saakashvili received a U.S.-government sponsored fellowship to continue his law studies at Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1994.
While in New York, he did exactly what the U.S. State Department had hoped when it sent him and thousands of other young students from the former Soviet Union to schools in the U.S: He fell in love with America.
He initially intended on settling in New York and practising law, but in 1995 he was personally headhunted by Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, who was looking to surround himself with talented young Georgians unhindered by old ideas. Mr. Saakashvili came home and, at just 26, was elected to parliament, along with Zhurab Zhvania and Nino Burdjanadze, two other young Georgians recruited to the cause. The young lawyer quickly made a name for himself as an anti-corruption campaigner and within five years his mentor made him justice minister.
But Mr. Saakashvili was cut from a very different cloth than Mr. Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who won fame for helping bring an end to the Cold War.
Dubbed the Silver Fox, Mr. Shevardnadze was a cautious and careful consensus builder who effectively negotiated away Tbilisi's hold over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in exchange for an end to the fighting and Russian interference that plagued his country during the early 1990s. While he spoke of cracking down on Georgia's endemic corruption problem, he was reluctant to tackle the problem head-on, fearful of upsetting the country's hard-won stability.
For Mr. Saakashvili -- stereotypically Georgian in his passion and taste for the impulsive -- these were unforgivable compromises.
A year after he was made justice minister, he resigned, declaring that Mr. Shevardnadze was complicit in the criminality bedevilling Georgia.
In opposition, he caught the eye of George Soros, the American billionaire and philanthropist who had initially become involved in Georgia at Mr. Shevardnadze's request. Mr. Soros also had become irritated by the Silver Fox's go-slow approach, and he decided that Mr. Saakashvili was the embodiment of Georgia's future.
The Soros foundations began pouring millions of dollars into organizations that were nominally interested in free media and democracy building but mainly served to undermine Mr. Shevardnadze's rule and push for Mr. Saakashvili to succeed him (including the youth movement Kmara, which would provide the backbone of the protests during the Rose Revolution).
ON THE PIPELINE
The U.S. State Department came to see Georgia that same way Mr. Soros did, although for very different reasons: The country stands on a key transit route for getting oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to markets in the West. The world's largest and most expensive pipeline project -- the $4-billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil line -- was to run across Georgian territory, and Mr. Shevardnadze's habit of playing Moscow and Washington off each other was deemed a risk to the investment.
Russia had always vehemently opposed the BTC, viewing the pipeline's route, which dances along the South Caucasus while carefully avoiding both Russia's territory and Iran's, as an effort to break through its growing stranglehold on the supply of energy to Europe.
For a country few outside the old Soviet Union had previously heard of, Georgia was suddenly thrust into the heart of international intrigue when U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney declared after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the BTC pipeline was of "vital strategic interest" to his country. The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi began to court Mr. Saakashvili, as well as Mr. Zhvania and Ms. Burdjanadze, who had joined him in opposition.
Mr. Saakashvili was a fast-rising force in Georgian politics. He founded the United National Movement, which caught the imagination of voters with a vision of Georgia as a modern, European country that could also reclaim its pre-Russian history by using the red-and-white, five-cross flag of the medieval kingdom of Georgia as its new party banner.
Just months after quitting Mr. Shevardnadze's cabinet, Mr. Saakashvili was elected mayor of Tbilisi, setting the stage for his head-to-head confrontation with the Silver Fox.
In many ways, the Rose Revolution in 2003 -- which saw massive street protests force Mr. Shevardnadze from office and Mr. Saakashvili elected in his place -- was as much an American victory over Russia on the geopolitical chessboard as it was a pro-democracy uprising. Within two years of the revolt, oil was flowing westward through a completed BTC pipeline and Georgia was seeking NATO membership with U.S. help.
Mr. Saakashvili's brashness and unpredictability made him the perfect leader for the protests. Even his closest associates don't know what inspired him to carry a rose as he charged into parliament to demand Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation over election fraud. The idea was Mr. Saakashvili's alone, they say.
The revolt inspired copycat people-power movements that overthrew the old order in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine the following year (the Orange Revolution) and Kyrgyzstan (the Pink, or Tulip, Revolution) in 2005. The Kremlin initially feared that the wave of "color revolutions" would wash over Red Square too.
Mr. Saakashvili won 96 per cent of the vote in the barely contested post-revolution elections, and once more made the five-cross banner Georgia's national flag. His audacious style helped him carry out astonishing reforms during his first years in office -- including a remarkable decision to simultaneously fire all the country's notoriously corrupt traffic policemen, rehiring only a third after forcing them to apply for their old jobs.
With Mr. Zhvania as his prime minister and Ms. Burdjanadze as speaker of parliament, the trio rapidly remade Georgia, at least in the eyes of the White House, from a corrupt post-Soviet backwater into a plucky friend of the West and a favoured destination of Western investors. He even won some belated admiration from Mr. Shevardnadze, who told me after the Rose Revolution that Mr. Saakashvili had the country on the right path, though the septuagenarian worried that "the youngsters" would take it too far.
In the eyes of some of his one-time allies, however, Mr. Saakashvili's early successes had the effect of convincing the young President that only he could fix Georgia. Worried that he was turning into an autocrat, a group of 14 non-governmental organizations that initially backed him signed a petition warning that the Rose Revolution was becoming "anti-democratic." When Mr. Zhvania mysteriously died in 2005 from gas poisoning in 2005, Mr. Saakashvili lost his closest friend and a moderating influence whom colleagues say often talked him out of rash decisions.
Radical economic reforms inevitably left many Georgians behind. Discontent grew as Mr. Saakashvili slashed the size of the civil service, and opposition demonstrations -- including some organized by a group known simply as Anti-Soros -- became a regular feature on Tbilisi's streets last year. In November, the President ordered riot police to disperse the protests with tear gas, water cannons, and batons.
With the opposition in disorder, he called snap elections and won a second term in January with a much less resounding, though still impressive, 53 per cent of the vote. His reputation in Europe was badly tarnished by the November crackdown. Ms. Burdjanadze, long his ally and arguably the country's second most popular politician, signalled her own discomfort with her snap decision to quit politics four months ago.
Mr. Saakashvili's impulsive penchant, combined with his overt distrust of nearly all things Russian, led to the escalating confrontation with Moscow that finally boiled over this week. In his world view, the Russians' military presence as "peacekeepers" in separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia was the leash holding Georgia back, guaranteeing the Kremlin's lingering and malicious influence over its ex-colony.
Though the territories are small -- and Abkhazians and South Ossetians are ethnically distinct from both Georgians and Russians, with their own languages -- Mr. Saakashvili saw the Russian presence as a present and future threat to his country's sovereignty. The nebulous state of the two regions gives the Kremlin a lever for destabilizing the country should it ever get too close to its ambitions of joining NATO and the European Union.
To Georgia's young President, the United States -- the country that had given him his education and then backed his rise to power -- was his country's potential saviour from what he perceived as renewed Russian imperialism.
"People have been feeling the change -- that's obvious. They feel that things are moving forward," Mr. Saakashvili proudly told me a few years ago when we met in his office for a talk about the successes and failures of the Rose Revolution, during which he lavished praise on the U.S. for its support. The phone rang and he asked me to excuse him for a moment: It was George W. Bush.
Determined to tie his country to the West, Mr. Saakashvili enthusiastically signed Georgia up to the American-led war in Iraq, and until last week only the United States and Britain were contributing more troops to the "coalition of the willing" (the 2,000 Georgian soldiers in Iraq were flown home this week on U.S. military aircraft to help deal with the crisis). The road connecting Tbilisi to its international airport was renamed President George W. Bush Street.
LAST STRAW FOR MOSCOW
The step that sealed Mr. Saakashvili's fate was his decision this year to formally seek NATO membership.
Despite Mr. Bush's enthusiastic support, the bid predictably failed, with France and Germany voicing concerns about taking on an ally that had outstanding territorial disputes with Russia. Old Europe didn't want to see the Third World War break out over a place called South Ossetia.
The fact that Mr. Saakashvili went ahead with the bid was enough to convince the Kremlin once and for all that he was an implacable enemy. Now that it has humbled him militarily, many expect a Russian-sponsored push to oust him from within.
While Russia doesn't seem interested in occupying Tbilisi, it could easily throw its clout behind Georgia's political opposition or, more dangerously, use its separatist allies as proxy armies. South Ossetian irregulars were reportedly behind the violence that continued after the French-brokered ceasefire this week, while troops from the second separatist region, Abkhazia, launched their own attack on Georgian troops in the northwest of the country.
Washington has escalated its tough talk in recent days, dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region and using warships and military aircraft to deliver aid. But with its military already overstretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and worried about a potential confrontation with Iran, it seems unlikely the U.S. can offer much more than moral support.
Although, in reality, Russia and the United States have been backstage antagonists for years now, the sound of explosions echoing off the Caucasus mountain range also heralds the final end of the hopeful era that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow and Washington are once more now fully at odds over everything from the World Trade Organization (which the U.S. has blocked Russia's efforts to join) to Iran's nuclear program (which the Kremlin has helped to build). South Ossetia is only the first hot conflict zone in this New Cold War.
"Georgia is the first test case . . . We should realize what is at stake for America: America is losing the whole region," an increasingly desperate Mr. Saakashvili said this week in an attempt to rally the West to Georgia's side. While Russia said it had accepted the ceasefire, he charged the next day that Russian troops were encircling Tbilisi, a claim later denied by his own Interior Minister.
All of which calls into question why Mr. Saakshvili chose Aug. 8 to launch his military offensive in South Ossetia, which had been outside Tbilisi's control since a short war in 1992. While his election platform this year centered on restoring Georgian authority in the breakaway territories, few expected him to try it militarily. Given that Mr. Putin, who retains wide power in the country as Mr. Medvedev's Prime Minister, had issued Russian passports to Abkhazians and South Ossetians during his eight-year presidency, a heavy-handed military response to Georgia's assault was as predictable as it was disproportionate.
Ten Russian peacekeepers reportedly died in the initial Georgian attack, which followed days of tit-for-tat shelling between South Ossetian and Georgian forces. The Russian fatalities made a counteroffensive inevitable even if Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin hadn't been waiting for just such an excuse to humble Mr. Saakashvili.
Indeed, they were waiting. Ever since the Rose Revolution, the Kremlin has viewed Mr. Saakashvili as an American pawn and his government as a threat to Russia's resurgence. The BTC pipeline blew a hole in Moscow's efforts to monopolize the supply of energy to Europe, while the effort to join NATO was taken as something close to a declaration of war.
"In the end, Saakashvili clearly underestimated Putin's personal hatred for him -- an enmity that became intense after an aide told Putin that Saakashvili described him as 'Lilliputian,'" columnist Yulia Latynina wrote in the Moscow Times this week. Mr. Putin, who stands five-foot-seven, is known to be insecure about his height.
The impetuousness that was so useful when Mr. Saakashvili was leading street demonstrations has proved to be a dangerous trait in a national leader in such a sensitive corner of the world.
Zaza Gachechiladze, editor-in-chief of the *Messenger*, an English-language newspaper in Tbilisi, said the sudden war smelled to him of a Kremlin trap. The shelling in South Ossetia was the bait, and Mr. Saakashvili leaped at it.
"It was a very well-organized provocation," he said in a telephone interview. "Unfortunately for Georgia, we made this dramatic and fatal step [of attacking South Ossetia]."
For now, he said, Georgians will rally around their flag and their leader -- thousands of citizens attended a pro-Saakashvili rally in the center of Tbilisi this week -- because few want to see a return to Russian domination. But eventually a reckoning will follow. Many will look to see what Ms. Burdjanadze, who has twice served capably as acting president, does and her evaluation of Misha's latest gambit may determine what happens next.
"When there's a threat to the country's existence as such, all the parties are united," said Mr. Gachechiladze, whose own paper saw one reporter killed and two others injured during the Russian counterattack. "Afterwards, we can discuss what went wrong and who has to pay -- and whether he will stay as President."
--Mark MacKinnon is the Globe and Mail's correspondent in the Middle East.
News & analysis
THE NEW YORK TIMES COVERS FOR U.S. ROLE IN GEORGIA CRISIS
By Alex Lantier and Barry Grey
World Socialist Web Site
August 16, 2008
In its recent coverage, the New York Times has repeatedly asserted that U.S. officials, in the lead-up to Georgia’s August 7 attack on South Ossetia, tried to prevent Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili from embarking on a military confrontation with Russia and were taken by surprise by the outbreak of hostilities. The Times published a pair of articles -- “After Mixed U.S. Messages, a War Erupted in Georgia” (August 13) and “Rejuvenated Georgian President Cites U.S. Ties as a ‘Turning Point’ in Conflict” (August 14) -- promoting claims by State Department officials that Saakashivili acted independently and against the advice of the U.S.
On August 13, the Times wrote: “During a private dinner on July 9, Ms. Rice’s aides say, she warned President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win. ‘She told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table,’ according to a senior administration official who accompanied Ms. Rice to the Georgian capital.”
The Times quoted an American officer involved in U.S.-Georgian military training programs as saying the Georgian attack on South Ossetia “caught us totally by surprise.”
At the same time, the article acknowledged the provocative tone adopted by Rice during her visit to Tbilisi. “Publicly, Ms. Rice struck a different tone,” the Times noted, “one of defiant support for Georgia in the face of Russian pressure.”
At a joint press conference with Rice, Saakashvili underscored the unqualified support given by Rice to his demand for the reassertion of Georgian control over the pro-Russian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He said, “We are also very grateful for your support for our peace plan for the conflicts and for your unwavering support for Georgia’s territorial integrity.”
The claim that Saakashvili acted without the foreknowledge and approval of the U.S. is simply not believable. No one could doubt that Russia, which had peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia, would respond strongly to a Georgian attack on the region. It is inconceivable that the regime in Tbilisi would take such a momentous action on its own.
The Georgian government is completely dependent on Washington -- politically, economically, and militarily. It is a creature of Washington, having to come to power in the U.S.-engineered “Rose Revolution” in late 2003.
Preparations would have been well advanced for the August 7 attack on South Ossetia when Rice was in Tbilisi only a month before. The Georgian military is virtually run by the U.S., having been revamped top to bottom by American military advisers and rebuilt with hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid. Rice’s trip, moreover, was followed by a three-week training mission at a military base outside of Tbilisi involving 1,000 U.S. soldiers.
The U.S. has built up the Georgian regime as its major ally in the Caucasus as part of its long-standing drive to supplant Russia in Moscow’s former spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Georgia is of particular strategic importance because it is a transit country for several oil and natural gas pipelines -- most prominently, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline running from the oil-rich Caspian Basin to the Mediterranean. The construction of the BTC pipeline was a central focus of U.S. foreign policy under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, precisely because it bypasses Russian territory.
The Times makes no attempt to explore the implications of the version of events it is promoting. Even if one were to accept the official line of the State Department, it would not diminish the culpability of the United States in the war that erupted between its client state and Russia.
If Saakashvili simply ignored the injunctions of his American sponsors, and independently launched a military adventure certain to further poison U.S.-Russian relations and even bring the two nuclear powers to the point of a military confrontation, then the question must be asked: Why has the U.S. backed such a reckless and irresponsible regime, and why is it redoubling its support going forward?
Moreover, if the official story is true, then the attempt of the U.S. to attribute the entire crisis to Russian aggression and expansionism collapses. It does not imply any support for the reactionary nationalist Putin regime and its actions to acknowledge that the existence of a wildly provocative “loose cannon” regime on its southern border would be bound to have some bearing on its policy in the region.
What, moreover, does the official account, backed up by the Times, reveal about the nature of the Georgian regime? Again, the Times maintains a cynical silence, but the implications are clear.
The Saakashvili government is a regime of immense crisis, resting on the narrowest of social foundations and based on virulent Georgian nationalism. The picture of a government that cannot be held back from lashing out militarily does not conform, needless to say, with the image of “democratic Georgia” so assiduously promoted by the U.S. government and media.
In fact, there is nothing democratic about the Saakashvili government. It is a right-wing regime that rests on a faction of the post-Soviet oligarchy that enriched itself by plundering the formerly nationalized economy. It has promoted a tiny wealthy élite on the basis of “free market” policies, while the broad mass of the Georgian people have slipped ever more deeply into poverty.
Its methods are authoritarian. Saakashvili himself was reelected in January 2008 in snap elections which he called after putting down mass protests the previous November and declaring martial law.
The Times’ potted account of the background to the Georgian-Russian conflict is part and parcel of its effort to whitewash the incendiary role of American imperialism in the region and conceal the predatory aims that underlie U.S. policy toward Russia. The major organ of the liberal establishment, allied politically to the Democratic Party, is doing its part to deceive and confuse public opinion and legitimize the mad drive of the American ruling élite for hegemony over the Eurasian continent.