Mixed Signals

While Washington always seems to know how to deal with Moscow in blunt, threatening language, it best beware that the times are a-changing. Nationalism and pride are on the march in Russia.
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MOSCOW -- This is no time for blustering in the Caucusus, not by the president of Georgia, by Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin or George Bush and Condoleezza Rice in Washington. That's because everyone can share the blame for what's been happening in Georgia and South Ossetia.

Rice, whose credentials as a Soviet expert have always been suspect, sat down at a private dinner on July 9th with Mikhail Saakashvili and in effect read him the riot act. According to an article in the New York Times, she warned him not to get involved in a conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win. A senior administration official who accompanied Rice to the meeting, said "she told him in no uncertain terms that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table." But here we are, a month later, Rice has gone public, warning to Moscow, declaring that "invasion of another country is unacceptable" and "they can't get away with it." As if our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were based on sweet invitations from the ruling clans.

The Times said that in the first five days of the conflict between Russia and Georgia that blossomed into a war, Bush administration officials had warned the government in Tbilisi "not to let Moscow provoke it into a fight -- and that they were surprised that their advice went unheeded." One of those cautioning Saakashvili, a known hot-head with close ties to the Republican Party from his days as a Wall Street lawyer, was Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried.

Whatever warnings of "beware" that the Georgian president heard, apparently went unheeded. The saber-rattling by President Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain and others egged on Saakashvili with no evidence that anyone in the Bush White House had thought it prudent to talk directly to Putin since the Russian offensive in Georgia itself intensified. It required more than a smile and bear hug in Beijing by Bush.

Keeping in mind that Saakashvili and many of his advisors are English-speakers who know how to spin in the best tradition of Madison Avenue and the Russians are somewhat less adroit, the American press seems to have been engrossed by the Georgian perspective.

The most prudent observations that I've seen have come from Tom de Waal, the Caucusus Editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.

"The Caucusus is the kind of a place where, when the guns start firing, it's hard to stop them. That is the reality of South Ossetia, where a small conflict is beginning to spread exponentially..." de Waal calls the Georgian attack on South Ossetia "a blatant violation of international humanitarian law." Saakashvili, he wrote, "is a famously volatile risk-taker, veering between warmonger and peacemaker, democrat and autocrat. "On several occasions international officials have pulled him back from the brink. On a visit to Washington in 2004, he received a tongue-lashing from then Secretary of State Colin Powell who told him to act with restraint. Two months ago, he could have triggered a war with his other breakaway province of Abkhasia by calling for the explusion of Russian peacekeepers from there, but European diplomats persuaded him to step back. This time, he has yielded to provocation and stepped over the precipice."

None of this should be intended as a defense of what Russia and Putin have done. It may no longer be the kind of police state with which we are familiar from the days of the Cold War. But Putin and a large number of his closest advisors are creatures of the KGB, the infamous secret police of the Soviet Union, and it is not surprising that they react to provocations and threats to their authority in much the same way as they did in the bad old days of the Cold War. But the fact is that Russia is in the midst of substantial change, not politically but economically and socially that I could observe in my all too brief visit in the past few weeks. It is a Russia far different than the one I remember from living there for three years. My only observation is that while Washington always seems to know how to deal with Moscow in blunt, threatening language, it best beware that the times are a-changing. Nationalism and pride are on the march in Russia. Its people are enjoying a measure of free enterprise they would never have had under the knuckle-head regime of the Communist Party.

We need to find a more prudent way of dealing with Russia that is far different from the days of the Cold War in much the same way we have grown accustomed to dealing with China. Only those of us who were watchers of Mao Zedong in the 1950s, '60s and '70s can appreciate how times have changed between Washington and Beijing as we watch the televised affection oozing out of the Olympic Games.

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