Neoconservatives’ support of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is unwavering. Even if he tried to lure the United States into a war with Russia, part of the American right still heralds him as an ally.
At the conservative Heritage Foundation, Luke Coffe appears to be Saakashvili’s cheerleader. A recent blog post is draped with admiration of the Georgian leader. Saakashvili, writes Coffe, “has handled Georgia’s difficult relations with Russia in a responsible, pragmatic manner” — Moscow would beg to differ — and “is committed to peace in the region.” How is that exactly?
Coffe references Russia’s 2008 “invasion” of Georgia but glosses over the fact that it was Saakashvili who attacked the breakaway province of South Ossetia that year which prompted the Russian offensive.
South Ossetia is largely populated by ethnic Russians and has been under de facto Russian control for nearly a decade. Saakashvili tried to retake it for Georgia, expecting that his ally President George W. Bush would back him up if the Russians responded. After all, hadn’t he spoken so admirably of Georgia’s 2003 revolution which had seen Saakashvili take power from the Kremlin’s strawman in Tbilisi?
Except the Americans, wisely, did not bother to support their newfound Georgian friend, recognizing that placating the Russians was rather more important than entertaining the aspirations of the president of a small Caucasus nation that is of little, if any, strategic value to the West.
Neoconservatives haven’t given up though. Coffe praises Saakashvili’s “non use of force” pledge which, of course, the Kremlin regards as a joke. “Saakashvili knows that there will not be a military solution to the occupation,” he adds. He may know it now, after Russia thwarted his attempt to engineer just such a military solution less than four years ago.
Short of NATO membership for Georgia — which Coffe does support — he proposes that the West sells anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Georgia. “So long as the weapons are defensive in nature, there is no reason not to provide them to the Georgian military.”
There is, actually. Arming Georgia would rightly alarm the Russians who will interpret such a move as the United States further encroaching on their borders which, as they see it, necessitated the 2008 intervention in the first place.
Russian strategic thinking is shaped by NATO’s expansion into Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While Russia was attempting recover from its unexpected retrogression, it believed that the West had pledged not to take advantage of its weakness and annex its European buffer zone. When the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined the Atlantic alliance just before the turn of the century nevertheless, it naturally compelled the Kremlin to look after its interests more carefully.
It has since carved out a far from impressive sphere of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia that Russian president Vladimir Putin hopes will one day be joined in an Eurasian Union. Despite NATO rubbing up to its western border, it has made only halfhearted attempts to regain a semblance of hegemony there. Belarus is the only former Warsaw Pact state still loyal to Moscow. In Ukraine, it tries to retain an influence but half of the country would rather join the European Union than be a Russian proxy.
In the few states that can still be considered in the Russian sphere, including Georgia and Ukraine, the West, during the last decade, welcomed — if not aided — regime change in the form of color revolutions which always displaced pro-Russian governments in favor of pro-Western ones. This, the Russians say, has gone far enough.
The West can either ignore Russia’s apprehension and instigate further conflagrations as happened in South Ossetia in 2008 or respect the country’s sense of insecurity and tolerate a feeble Russian buffer zone that includes Georgia. (Not Azerbaijan though. It has a lot of natural gas.)
Choosing the former in the name of protecting democracy and freedom would subjugate Western interests to values and raise Georgia’s hopes that next time, America will have its back. It won’t. The United States are not going to risk a war with Russia over Georgia. Pretending otherwise is outright reckless as it could convince Saakashvili that he can have another shot at conquering South Ossetia.