Center for American Progress

Reckless Management of U.S. Interests in the Caucasus

Reckless Management of U.S. Interests in the Caucasus

Scott Lilly raises questions about the U.S. role in the escalation of conflict in Georgia.

Gay rights activists stage a protest at the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, May 18, 2012. (AP/Shakh Aivazov)
Gay rights activists stage a protest at the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, May 18, 2012. (AP/Shakh Aivazov)

The politics of the isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas has been even rougher than its topography since the beginning of recorded history. It is a place where empires collide and aspirations for self-determination are regularly trampled under the boots of invading armies.

Russia has claimed control of this area for most of the past two centuries despite the very steep price required for that control. From 1804 to 1813, Russia battled Persia for control over the South Caucasus in a war that ended at Lenkoran, a battle that, according to The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, claimed the lives of every single member of the Persian force and three quarters of the Russian force.

That troubled history should be considered by those who think the collapse of the Soviet Union was a seminal event that has permanently reshaped the world’s political boundaries. To those on all sides of the current conflicts in the South Caucasus, it is only the latest chapter in struggles that date back through the millennia—a chapter that is showing many signs of coming to an end.

Helping oppressed peoples achieve political self-determination is a noble goal and one Americans have contributed to for much of their history. It is also a goal that can lead to cataclysmic consequences for both the United States and those we hope to defend if it is pursued without recognition of the limits to American power, the reality that there are no “good guys” in many such disputes, and the fact that solutions that do not to some extent accommodate the interests of major powers in the region are not likely to endure. The Bush policies with respect to Georgia appear to have taken none of these considerations into account.

Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili is young, photogenic, American educated, and speaks excellent English. He was elected in January 2004 on a platform of political reform—an area in which many observers feel Georgia has made significant strides since his election. He also promised to return breakaway separatist regions to the control of the central government. These include Adjaria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia—regions dominated by non-Georgian ethnic groups who violently oppose being placed more directly under the control of Saakashvili’s government and who, based on mediation of previous violent conflicts with the Georgian government, have the protection of Russian military “peace keepers.”

Returning these provinces was a tall order, and one that both Saakashvili and his American advisors should have considered carefully before translating campaign rhetoric into military strategy. But perhaps even more problematic was the military strategy that Saakashvili and his government placed in motion. As in most conflicts, the battles that took place in Georgia last week were triggered by a series of precipitating events that rapidly escalated into full-scale military confrontation.

Just who was most responsible for the escalation may never be fully determined. But it is safe to say that the Saakashvili government did not hesitate to raise the stakes and did not back down until the full brunt of Russian retaliation had been unleashed. There appears to be little disputing, for instance, that the Georgia military units that attacked the city of Tskhinval in South Ossetia on August 7 fired on and destroyed much of the barracks compound that housed Russian peacekeepers prior to the entry of regular Russian forces into Georgia some hours later.

These actions by the Georgian government were not simply irresponsible, they were remarkably stupid from the standpoint of Georgia maintaining the integrity of its own borders; the longer-term prospects for peace and stability in the region and U.S. geopolitical interests. If one believes, as I do, that the Russians had long hoped for this kind of opening, the actions by the Georgian military were even more absurd. Russia was given a free pass to not only destabilize the current government of Georgia, but to announce to governments in places ranging from the Baltic Sea to Eastern Asia that there are portions of the world where American military power is not supreme.

The later issue is of far more concern to the United States than it is to Georgia, but it raises a very important question for Americans. What was the role of our government in this tragedy of miscalculations? What role did the Bush White House, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, and the approximately 100 U.S. military advisors in Georgia play in the missteps of Saakashvili and his 30 year old Defense Minister, Davit Kezerashvili?

One would presume that a military mission of the size and scope of the one Washington now maintains in Georgia would have been fully appraised and “on board” with military actions having such significant implications for the interests of both countries. Did the Saakashvili government act behind the back of their U.S. sponsors, or did we concur or even encourage such reckless and unsustainable policies? Did U.S. intelligence anticipate the response of Russia? If so, were the warnings shared with policymakers here and Tbilisi?

There is a great deal about the events that lead to this crisis that make little sense from the standpoint of reasoned and mature management of foreign policy. Congress has a responsibility to get to the bottom of this and to do so as quickly as possible.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow