Does Putin Have Georgia On His Mind?

Ilya Somin takes a look at the deal ending the conflict between Russia and Georgia. He finds that it isn’t as bad as it could have been:

If this agreement holds (a big if), it’s a better outcome than I would have expected. Georgia’s democratic government will remain in place, despite Russia’s previous determination to overthrow it. The Russians will not have destroyed Georgia’s oil pipeline to Europe (the most important pipeline in the region that doesn’t pass through Russian or Iranian territory). And Russia will renounce future use of force against Georgia and reduce its forces in the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to their prewar levels. I am skeptical that the Russians will fully respect the last two commitments. Nonetheless, the outcome could have been far worse.

The problem is that Russia clearly is sending a message, not only to Georgia, but to the rest of its former satellites: we can break you. Vladimir Putin and his crony Dmitri Medvedev will use whatever they can to ensure that Russia’s hegemony over the former Soviet Union is not challenged. Ukraine, another democratic, pro-Western state, is likely to be next in Russia’s crosshairs.

Putin wants to ensure that Russia, and not those upstart republics to its southwest, gets the benefit of supplying most of Europe’s natural gas. The Georgian crisis was draped with the idea that Russia had to protect South Ossetia, but the truth of the matter is that these last few days have been about nothing but realpolitik. Putin and Medvedev are trying to get money and power—and that is all too easy when the Russian Army can act as private enforcers.

President Saakashvili made a crucial mistake in provoking the Russians over Ossetia, although it’s not clear how much the Georgians were themselves provoked by Ossetian agents working at the behest of the Kremlin. The Georgian Army can’t match the strength of the Russian Army, and the United States was not about to get themselves involved in any conflict between the two. The Georgians unleashed something they could not control, which in war can be fatal.

Some are saying that the Georgians were warned of the danger. Whenever “unnamed sources” in government speak, it’s bound to be self-serving CYA. The US intelligence community seems to have been caught off guard once again—although appearances can be deceiving. Making sure that we’re not caught flat-footed in a situation like this is critical in the age of information-centric warfare. If the intelligence community can’t seem to notice the significance of major Russian troop movements, how can they be expected to track al-Qaeda?

The final question is what lies ahead. The Russians’ hegemonic ambitions in the region are not going to go away any time soon. Georgia and Ukraine are American allies—democratic states that are worthy of our protection. At the same time, Russia can be a powerful ally or a fearsome enemy, and we are better off with them being the former. We are caught in the kind of power politics that were supposed to have been a relic of the Cold War. Our brief holiday from history is over.

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