The Bolshevik government signed a treaty respecting Georgia’s independence — which Europe, as President Saakashvili pointedly reminded me, naÃ¯vely insisted on taking at face value. By the time the Europeans woke up to reality, it was too late. ~James Traub
Of course, the Europeans of the late 1910s and early 1920s may have had just a few other things that were higher priorities than the independence of Georgia. It wasn’t a question of “waking up”–by 1920-21, European support for the Whites throughout most of the old empire had disappeared because the Bolsheviks had won. U.S. aid to the Whites in Siberia would expire soon after that when the Bolsheviks took Vladivostok. Meanwhile, there were problems brewing for different Allied powers in Iraq and Turkey at this time that took precedence. Leave it to a nationalist like Saakashvili to think of post-WWI history in utterly ethnocentric terms. Of course, he has every reason to portray the Russia-Georgia relationship today as a reprise of the Bolshevik takeover: it plays well with Western audiences, it inspires sympathy and aligns the modern Russian government with its far more despicable predecessor.
Traub writes later:
The head of the Georgian Communist party was Lavrenti Beria, a cold-blooded killer who would become the master architect of Stalin’s terror.
I assume most people know who Beria was, but I cite this because it is important to remember that Saakashvili’s wife invoked Beria, along with Stalin, as an example of the kind of strong Georgian leader that she believed her husband to be. Even once you account for Georgian nationalist bias, the old cult of personality directed towards Stalin and the collective post-Soviet amnesia about Soviet government crimes, that statement remains fairly shocking since his wife is Dutch and presumably knows more of the record of Stalin and Beria unclouded by mythology. (
Interestingly, the old Weekly Standard article by Richard Carlson that also included this detail has apparently been scrubbed from their site, but here is the cache of the page.) Here is a telling excerpt from the interview with Saakashvili’s wife that I have mentioned before:
I think my husband is the right person to frighten people. That is not to say it is immediately fascism or something. Should he develop extremist traits he will be alerted to that.
It seems that he was not alerted often enough.
Traub adds this very debatable claim later:
Of course NATO is no longer an anti-Soviet alliance, and the fact that Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its security is a vivid sign of the deep-rooted cold war mentality of Mr. Putin and his circle.
Think about that one. Having outlived its reason for being when the USSR collapsed, NATO remains a military alliance, and it is expanding up to the borders of Russia, but it reflects the Cold War mentality of Putin and his circle that they regard this as a threat? Isn’t there at least as much evidence for the Cold War mentality of the people who support expanding an outdated Cold War alliance in deliberately anti-Russian ways? Add to this that one of the biggest supporters of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and one of the biggest critics of Russia during the Second Chechen War and over the last decade, John McCain, is unusually strident in his hostility to Russia, which he expresses through his support for Tbilisi. It doesn’t take a genius to grasp that Moscow perceives NATO expansion in anti-Russian terms because some of its foremost advocates, including someone who may be the next President, are obviously, reflexively anti-Russian.
Nonetheless, while there are certain problems with Traub’s piece (the constant references to 1938 are as grating as they are irrelevant, except insofar as it describes Saakashvili’s neocon-like obsession with that year), it offers some good background, particularly as it relates to the background of the current conflict:
Soon after taking office, he succeeded in regaining Georgian control over the southwestern province of Ajara. Then, in the summer of 2004, citing growing banditry and chaos, he sent Interior Ministry troops into South Ossetia. After a series of inconclusive clashes, the troops were forced to make a humiliating withdrawal.
Still, this violation of the status quo infuriated the Russians, and Mr. Saakashvili, for once listening to his few dovish advisors, agreed to seek a negotiated settlement in Abkhazia. By late 2005, a Georgian mediator had initialed an agreement: Georgia would not use force, and the Abkhaz would allow the gradual return of 200,000-plus ethnic Georgians who had fled the violence. But the agreement collapsed in early 2006, done in by hardliners on both sides. This chapter has been all but effaced from the history one hears in Georgia.
Traub also acknowledges the direct role Western recognition of Kosovo had on Moscow’s decision-making:
Although Russia, as the peacekeeping power, was charged with preserving an international consensus that recognized Georgia’s claims over Abkhazia, Russia lifted sanctions on Abkhazia last March. This had nothing to do with local events: Mr. Putin had tried for years to prevent Kosovo from declaring its independence from Serbia, and when the Kosovars went ahead, with strong American and European support, last February, Mr. Putin responded by leveling a blow at America’s Caucasus darling.
The thing that I find most frustrating, and what I think Russians may also find very frustrating, is that even after years of long Russian forebearance in the face of things Moscow regarded as serious provocations and humiliations Russia has continually been portrayed as an expansionist, revisionist and (in McCain’s crazy world) “revanchist.” Many American pols were taking this view of Russia when it was quite weak, c. 1999, and you have them taking it up now that Russia is resurgent, and at neither time was it the correct view.
Traub buys into the view that recent events have made it harder to advance a realist view of Russia:
In a recent essay, the archrealist Henry Kissinger argued that Putin-era policy had been driven not by dreams of restored glory, but by “a quest for a reliable strategic partner, with America being the preferred choice.” Some Russia experts on the left, like Stephen Cohen of Princeton, have taken a similar view. But Russia’s bellicose behavior, and now the hostilities along its border, make it increasingly difficult to act on such a premise without seeming naÃ¯ve.
On this point, however, Kissinger and Cohen are right. One of the impediments to building such a partnership between Washington and Moscow is the assumption that Moscow is a revisionist power that must be thwarted at every step. The other obvious impediments are the steady eastward creep of NATO and the introduction of U.S. weapons systems into current central European member states. Depressingly, some of the foreign policy advisors to the candidates don’t seem to understand this at all. Just as worrying as Kagan’s misleading democracy/autocracy struggle model are the views of one of Obama’s Russia advisors, Michael McFaul:
He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”
There’s that Cold War mentality again. But if he has a Cold War mentality, how would his response to NATO expansion be anything but the result of a geostrategic calculation about the military and political threat the expanded Alliance poses? It is not encouraging that any of Obama’s advisors thinks that the current Russian government is dedicated to working against U.S. interests, since that attitude, if it continues to be enshrined in policy, will be a self-fulfilling one.
Update: The full Carlson article is here.
Correction: Carlson’s Weekly Standard article was not taken down from their site. The mistake was entirely mine, and I regret the error.