Russia-Georgia War in 2008 Told the West -- and Putin -- What Was Coming

Putin is playing with a strong hand on his home turf. His ultimate intentions in the Ukraine in the current crisis are opaque. But his goals have been known for years.
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Why, exactly, are we surprised? Up until Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the Crimean peninsula, a large swath of the commentariat seemed to think that such an action in this day and age was unthinkable. Then, when President Obama warned Putin against military intervention, it seemed all but inevitable.

This was not cynicism or defeatism or a reflection on other red lines. Rather, it was the simple realization that there was little to be done to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, should Putin choose to do so. Russia has air and ground forces arrayed along the 1,500-mile northern and eastern borders of Ukraine -- to say nothing of its Black Sea Fleet birthed at the Ukrainian port of Sebastopol. The question was only whether he would choose to do so.

As Americans, we tend to view world events through rose colored glasses, and so we did as the Ukraine crisis escalated. We cheer on the toppling of autocrats and the birth of nascent democracies, and we frame events through a Manichaean lens of good and evil, of 'good guys' and 'bad guys.'

Our good guy/bad guy rubric is not consistent, however. We support young democracies, until election results don't fit our preferred narrative. We decry brutal, autocratic regimes, but make exceptions for countries with important economic or historical ties. And former enemies can become friends -- black hats exchanged for white -- when the confluence of democratic change, political alignment and economic interests align.

But if there is has been one immutable adversary over the past century, it is Russia. The Berlin Wall may be no longer, the Soviet Union a relic of the past, but it has been a quarter century since the end of the Cold War and Russia has lost little of its 'Evil Empire' sheen. We still see ourselves as we did a half a century ago, Rocky and Bullwinkle, fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way against Boris Badenov, Natasha and the one-eyed Fearless Leader. We are the good guys. They are not.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing, it seemed for a brief moment that a change in that paradigm might be possible. To assuage historical Russian fears of encirclement by the west, President George H. W. Bush promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the United States would not take advantage of the dismemberment of the Soviet Union to draw former Warsaw Pact nations into the NATO alliance.

Yet, within just a few short years every former Warsaw Pact nations joined NATO. And while that fact was not proof of American perfidy -- after all, those countries had ample reason to seek refuge in the west and in NATO -- the elder President Bush's assurances were never integrated into American policy. Before long, the policy of containment that George Kennan prescribed to control Soviet expansionism in the 1940s found new life. The encirclement of Russia -- in particular the expansion of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia -- became central tenets of post-Soviet American policy, and for the ascendent Neoconservatives the break-up of the Russian federation was the ultimate stated goal.

Even as American political groups backed reformist parties in Russian elections, Putin emerged as a powerful and popular President of Russia in large measure due to his steadfast opposition to the continuing humiliation of Russia at the hands of American and NATO policies. He worked steadfastly to solidify Russia's security perimeter and to return prestige to the Russian state. Putin's ambitions were not secret, and his hostility to U.S. and European designs on Ukraine was well established.

Events in Georgia in 2008 presaged what was to come in Ukraine. After Georgia elected a pro-Western government, Russia intervened militarily -- ostensibly to protect the ethnic Russian populations within the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Vice President Dick Cheney decried Putin's action, declaring that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community."

But Putin's actions in Georgia did go unanswered. Russian intervention in Georgia was quick, decisive and brief -- and he got away with it. For all the bellicose inclinations of the second Bush administration and the Neocon embrace of Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili, there was no U.S. or European response of any substance. The international community quickly turned its attention to other matters, and Russia continues to occupy Georgian sovereign soil to this day.

Writing in the Washington Post, Bush administration State Department official Elliot Cohen sums up the widespread critique -- from the Republican right to the Washington Post editorial page -- of President Obama's performance, "President Obama's history of issuing warnings and, when they are ignored, moving on smartly to the next topic gave a kind of permission ... Absent a severe penalty -- one that inflicts pain where Putin can feel it, to include Russia's economy and his personal wealth and control of that country -- the lesson learned will be, "You can get away with it."

Cohen concludes by demanding tough American, "The world is a darkening place, and the precedents being set are ones that will haunt us for decades to come unless the U.S. administration can act decisively and persistently against Russia." Cohen dismisses the importance of Putin's invasion of Georgia that occurred on his watch, labeling Georgia a country of no consequence that provoked -- and therefore implicitly deserved -- Russia's ire. The truth is just the opposite, however. Ukraine is of far greater import to Russia strategically, historically and politically. Georgia proved out for Putin the central premise that while U.S. and NATO policy has been and remains to tighten its strategic noose around the Russian heartland, limited actions to control its perimeter would not be met with a significant response.

No one has any illusions that Putin's actions to date in the Crimea can be rolled back by force, or expects to hear a version of President George H. W. Bush's words of warning to Saddam Hussain -- "this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait..." When Florida Senator and Presidential Aspirant Marco Rubio weighed in the "8 Steps Obama Must Take to Punish Russia," the gap between rhetoric and the facts on the ground only widened. "This is a critical moment in world history," Rubio declared, mirroring Dick Cheney's tone years before. "The credibility of the alliances and security assurances that have preserved the international order is at stake. If Putin's illegal actions are allowed to stand unpunished, it will usher in a dark and dangerous era in world affairs."

Yet, when faced with an issue of historic consequence, Rubio's eight steps lacked the urgency of his rhetoric: Stronger denunciations. Barring Russia from international organizations. Limiting Russian visas to the U.S. There is no call for the U.S. to match Russia's proposed $15 billion aid package to address Ukraine's massive economic problems -- the best we have seen is John McCain's proposal to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees. There is no call to arms, no commitment to building a Ukrainian resistance. No threat of retaliation against the Russian homeland. The closest Rubio comes to urging a show of force was his call to admit Georgia into NATO. But Rubio knows well that admitting Georgia into NATO is infeasible because Russian troops already occupy Georgian soil, a fact that could immediately compel NATO action against Russia in Georgia's defense.

It is all just words. Only the inaction of the Bush administration in 2008 keeps one from wondering wistfully what would Dick Cheney do...

To date, the presumption has been that Putin's objectives will be satisfied with the annexation of the Crimea, and the swiftness of the Russian-Georgia war supports this thesis. But this is a unique moment for Russia to -- in its mind -- restore the integrity of its borders. One can imagine that Putin must have considered at least four different intervention possibilities. First, seizing Crimea and securing the Black Sea Fleet, as has been accomplished to date, followed by the restoration of the Crimea to Russian sovereignty. Second, moving beyond the Crimea to occupy a swath of eastern and southern Ukraine with majority ethnic Russian populations, under the pretext of providing a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula that the first scenario would lack. Third, seizing all of the majority Russian territory across eastern and southern Ukraine to the Moldovan boarder. And fourth, taking all of Ukraine, and thus fully securing the Russia-Ukraine border, as well as the Russian gas pipelines that traverse central Ukraine, passing through Kiev, to Europe.

Each of these possibilities would entail increasing levels of difficulty, occupying lands with increasingly hostile local populations, and incurring increasing levels of opprobrium from the west. With the first two or three scenarios, Putin can move forward with his proposed referendum to establish de jure support for the de facto partition of the country.

It may seem like we are embarking on a new dark and dangerous era, as Cohen and Rubio suggest. But apparently Dick Cheney saw the onset of that era years ago, under his watch. Perhaps George H. W. Bush had a more subtle grasp of the exigencies of dealing with Russia than Rubio or Dick Cheney. The elder Bush recognized the importance of acknowledging that Russia has its own strategic interests within its region, and that even with the collapse of the Communist regime, it would have the power to assert itself. Unlike Rubio and Cheney, Bush eschewed a Manichean world view, and could accept that other nations have interests and perspectives that are different than ours. Russia, Bush and the Paleoconservatives around him understood, would be less dangerous if it were not backed into a corner.

But that was not the path we chose. Instead, we chose to push Russia to the wall at every opportunity possible, and now we are surprised that it is pushing back. Putin is playing with a strong hand on his home turf. His ultimate intentions in the Ukraine in the current crisis are opaque. But his goals have been known for years.

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