Russia Policy: Making a Virtue out of Ceding the Initiative

I had originally intended to post briefly on the implications of the Russo-Georgian War for State vs. State warfare and 4GW but today’s reactions by the Bush administration and Senators McCain and Obama are a more important concern. The United States has no strategic policy in regard to Russia – and if the statements of the candidates for president are to be believed – we won’t have one in the next four years either.

President Bush, speaking today:

….As I have made clear, Russia’s ongoing action raise serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic, and security structures of the 21st century. The United States has supported those efforts. Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions. To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis.

The President is alluding to Russia’s G-8 membership, the WTO, the OECD and similarly prestigious diplomatic entities. The strong emphasis Bush placed upon the need for Russian adherence to the cease-fire agreement and extending humanitarian aid was very well placed from the perspective of a moral level of conflict. The cancellation of American participation in a scheduled Russian-NATO meeting was also appropriate ( no allies signed on to that very minor reprimand). Though we need to be honest here, the dispatch of U.S. military personnel to deliver humanitarian aid is meant as a “tripwire” against a resumption of a full-bore Russian onslaught into Georgia, not just to hand out MRE’s and bottled water to displaced villagers. It’s a very serious move ( and unaccompanied as far as I am aware by German, French or other NATO troops – if I am wrong, please correct me).

Let’s be perfectly clear: the Russian Army’s invasion of Georgia was carried out in trademark Russian fashion, brutally with obvious disregard for civilian casualties and reports of casual murders and looting by Russian soldiers. The only noteworthy exception to their usual, thuggish, performance here has been the swift accomplishment of all military objectives and total rout of the enemy army. Not since special KGB commandos seized the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul and assassinated a Prime Minister in 1979 has a Russian military operation been carried out so flawlessly.

As a result, many people in European capitals, the State Department, the IC and the Pentagon have egg on their faces right now. A lot of serious VIPs have been embarrassed by a client ( Saakashvili and company) who performed so poorly in this debacle – at every level that matters – that much of their previous professional advice and opinions regarding said client in retrospect look like hopelessly incompetent bullshit. These VIP’s are faced with two choices: circle the wagons around their naked emperor and try to find some kind of bow to put on this disaster or candidly admit that they horribly misjudged the entire situation to their superiors and reassess the policy in regards to Georgia from scratch.

Guess which route we are going today ?

Now to be fair, many of the actions taken by the President are sound and wise ones. Russia needs to feel significant pushback here and Bush is doing that very firmly and responsibly – and without much help from our allies other than President Sarkozy. The problem is that these are ad hoc reactions – flailing about frantically because in truth the United States has had no strategic policy toward Russia or any objective that gets much further than pleasing insider interests who are squealing loudest to the administration or the Congress. Not decommissioning Russian nukes fast enough ? Look no further than American uranium company lobbies. In regards to Kosovo or Georgia, that would be the EU. What? Isn’t Saakashvili America’s “special project” ( to quote Russia’s Foreign Minister – some Putin toady, name unimportant, he warms a chair). Well, not really. My friend Dave Schuler has an outstanding post on Europe’s stake in Georgia. It’s a lot larger than is ours:

….Germany’s ties with Georgia are, if anything, closer. Georgia is Germany’s fifth largest trading partner. I presume that much of this trade is a consequence of Georgia’s two pipelines. Energy independence is as much a political hot topic in Germany as it is here but the term means mostly not being so terribly dependent on Russia. The path to greater energy independence for Germany lies through Georgia.

….In 2007 FDI in Georgia exceeded the $1 billion mark. A substantial proportion of that was EU countries.

Would any reader care to hazard a guess as to the number of German troops expected to be standing next to American soldiers in Georgia delivering humanitarian aid ? This is not to knock the Germans per se as to point out that the United States carrying all of the water for Europe and absorbing all of the friction in return for nothing doesn’t make a whole lot of strategic sense. Europe is safe, wealthy and grown-up and not shy about pressing their collective economic interests but slow to accept all of the responsibilities they ask of the United States and our own State Department is a reflexive enabler of the extended European adolescence. Leadership in an alliance does not always mean being the other guy’s doormat.

Deciding what our long-term interests are in the region and what our relationship with Russia should be is something seventeen years overdue and presidential candidates who have no clue, left to their own devices, of what to do or, who take foreign policy advice from a paid agent of a foreign government, worry the hell out of me.


Fabius Maximus had some recommended posts on Russia-Georgia worth sharing that I’d like to add here along with a few others I caught this morning:

Stratfor War Nerd Helena Cobban Joshua Foust Glittering Eye Coming Anarchy Robert Kaplan (Hat tip CA)

Whirledview SWJ Blog Global Guerillas Selil Blog Andrew Sullivan

6 thoughts on “Russia Policy: Making a Virtue out of Ceding the Initiative”

  1. It seems the major mistake the Russians made was to forget to announce beforehand that they had found Georgia to be harboring Weapons of Mass Destruction.

  2. Heh.

    We have two possibilities here, both highly negative reflections on the Foreign Service, CIA and the Department of Defense.:

    a) We greenlighted the Georgians in Ossetia while misreading Russia’s likely response, it’s military capabilities and it’s determination while grossly overestimating those of the Georgians or the willingness of our European allies to do anything to help if things went astray.


    b) We were caught completely off guard by either the Georgians, the Russians or both.

  3. We made mistakes. We may not have a substantial policy in this area. In other areas we have bad policies. What else is new.

    There are two main questions here. One is what to do next. The other is how to improve our foreign-policy decisionmaking. On what to do next, we are at least finally doing something, which in this situation seems to be much better than doing nothing. Whether we are doing the right things isn’t yet clear, but I think it’s clear that we had to act and that acting late is better than not acting.

    How to improve the poor performance of our foreign-policy apparatus, particularly the bureaucracies, is a huge problem. I suspect we would have been in better shape now if Bush had fired the top management of the CIA after 9/11. The State Dept. is another Augean Stables, but I don’t know if Bush could have cleaned it out even soon after 9/11. He tried in his own way to do something about both of these bureaucracies, but he failed. I don’t think it’s conceivable that Obama would do a better job, and I am not optimistic about McCain.

    The central problem is not that someone screwed up but that our govt institutions are not up to their tasks. I hope that it won’t take a catastrophe to create the political will for effective reforms, but I suspect that nothing substantial will be done unless we do suffer a catastrophe.

  4. I agree with Jonathan. It was and is inconceivable that George Tenet was not told to resign or be fired no later than mid-day 9-12-01—I still don’t understand why Bush kept him, he wasn’t even a Bush appointee or a Republican, and look at his subsequent fine advice about Iraqi WMD (“A slam-dunk!”). Maybe Tenet had some dirt on Bush or someone close…

    History will record that Bush’s biggest flaw was he was too nice, too loyal to subordinates who failed him—Tenet, Casey, Rumsfeld–contrast with Lincoln or FDR, say.

    I,too, have little confidence McCain would master the beast at Foggy Bottom, but I am quite sure Obama would never even be aware there’s a problem.

  5. As far as clearing Augean stables, every year we hear that education is failing in America (another security crisis in the making – along with the cause of unhappy and stunted intellectual lives). Again, Bush made an attempt that seemed better than those of previous presidents. Again, the results do not inspire confidence; reforms are sabatouged by inertia as much as bad policy (and bad philosophy).

    If Obama wanted to (and I don’t see that he interprets these crises thoughtfully nor has much desire but to encourage the worst in these institutions), with all the goodwill among these groups he might be bringing into office, inertia is likely to prevail.

    Jonathan the silver lining of some kind of catastrophe may be that will – but it may also be too late.

  6. I agree with Jonathan about the failure to hold the CIA responsible after 9/11. It was one of his real mistakes, perhaps his worst. I think his other mistakes were, not asking for a $2/gal. additional gasoline tax to fund the GWoT, and not immediately beginning the expansion of the Army & Marines toward a goal of at least 90 combat brigades (we are about 60 right now).

    I’ll bet that there are no Democrats who agree with me on this list.

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