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How the West Botched Georgia

The guns around Tbilisi have now fallen silent. Efforts are underway to finalize a truce between Russia and Georgia to end Moscow’s bloody invasion. It is time for the West to look in the mirror and ask: What went wrong? How did this disaster happen? Make no mistake. While this is first and foremost a disaster for the people and government of Georgia, it is also a disaster for the West--and for the U.S. in particular.

After all, Georgia was, in a fairly basic sense, our project. The Rose Revolution was inspired by American ideals--and prodding. Many of its leaders were Western-educated and cut their teeth in U.S.-sponsored NGOs. The radical reforms carried out by Mikheil Saakashvili and his team of young democrats drew on the American experience. Georgia’s NATO drive was inspired by the U.S. push to enlarge NATO to Central and Eastern Europe. Three years ago, President George W. Bush stood in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square and told Georgians that American would support them as they traveled their road to freedom. Tbilisi’s boulevard to the airport is named after him.

I was among those Americans who have been busy in recent years trying to help Georgia turn toward the West. Successful democratization there could have an important ripple effect across the region, and the country’s proximity to Iran and the Arab world, as well as its strategic oil corridor, make its stability an international security imperative. As one of the architects of NATO enlargement in the 1990s, I was sought by the Georgian government to advise them on how best to prepare the country for eventual alliance membership. I led several study tours that took senior U.S. and Europeans officials to the country, including to the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to see them up close and gain firsthand knowledge. I have spent many hours talking with and getting to know senior Georgian figures from Mikheil Saakashvili on down. I developed a good feel for what drives this country and its leadership. I know that this is a war that the Georgian government never wanted.

To be sure, the Georgian government and President Saakashvili himself is responsible for launching its military move on August 7--albeit in response to provocations and heavy shelling by South Ossetian separatists. That move gave Moscow the pretext to invade. Today, Western observers understandably ask why Tbilisi allowed itself to be goaded into what was clearly a Russian trap. President Saakashvili will have to answer that question himself. But I suspect I have a pretty good idea of what he will say. In our recent conversations, it was clear to me that he was concluding that the West was not serious about resolving these conflicts, that he did not believe he would ever have the diplomatic support required, and that the status quo could not go on forever. He watched Russia’s creeping annexation of Abkhazia start last spring with almost no Western response. That does not justify what clearly was a terrible strategic mistake by Georgia to act militarily. But it points to the mistakes--both of omission and commission--the West made that contributed to this crisis.

First of all, it was the West that helped create and perpetuate the myth of Russia as peacekeeper in these conflicts. The origins of this mistake go back to the end of the first Bush administration--unwilling to get involved itself and convinced that a Russia under Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Kozyrev could be a benign force--which supported Russia taking the lead in policing these conflicts. That was Yeltsin. Then came Putin. What started out as a neutral role became a front for pursuing neo-imperial Russian objectives as Moscow increasingly took one side of the conflict. It became part of the problem, not the solution.

Over the years, many observers have urged the U.S. and its allies to amend these mandates--particularly to bring in non-Russian observers or peacekeepers in order to re-establish the neutrality of this force. The latest push for what was termed the “internationalization of the conflict” occurred earlier this summer as war clouds were appearing on the horizon in Abkhazia. But Western governments never seriously took up the issue. It was considered too difficult and too much to ask of Moscow, so diplomats demurred. It would have been much preferable to fight that diplomatic fight then than have the situation we have now. Had we pushed for real neutral peacekeeping forces, we might have prevented this war.

Then there is Kosovo, where Western diplomacy increased Georgia’s vulnerability and helped create the pretense for Putin’s latest move. I supported Kosovo independence as did many others. But one need not be Clausewitz to understand that in doing so, we were putting a country like Georgia at risk for Russian retaliation. In spite of this, the West never had a plan to shield Georgia from the possible fall out from Kosovo. And today, the West is caught flat-footed as we watch Russia use many of our own arguments for Western intervention on Kosovo to justify Moscow’s invasion of Georgia.

There is also a direct line between NATO’s failure to send a unified signal on Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest summit in early March. After a spectacular row over whether to grant Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the alliance agreed to drop the MAP option but offered "intensive engagement" along with a vague promise of membership sometime in the future. At the time, diplomats tried to put a positive spin on this outcome, claimed it was creative ambiguity. Well, that ambiguity turned out to be more destructive than creative. As opposed to reassuring Georgia and deterring Russia, NATO’s decision may have provoked the Russians and probably accelerated the path to war.

And then there is the rumor that President Bush has on several key occasions failed to raise our commitment to Georgia in meetings with Putin--including right after the NATO summit. I do not know what the President did or did not say. What I do know is that when Russian officials suggest such things, they are sending a signal. Europe’s response has, of course, been even worse. Although the E.U. flag flies in the President’s office in Tbilisi, E.U. support for Georgia has been marginal. I have spent many hours discussing Georgia with European officials. Divided over how to deal with Russia and unsure over how high (or low) a priority Georgia should be, the E.U.’s performance has been weak both in terms of form and substance. Thus far, the E.U. has never taken a strong stand on Georgia vis-a-vis Moscow or, for example, provided practical assistance in terms of meaningful observers or peacekeepers. Even today, some E.U. leaders profess the need to stay neutral in the conflict while Georgia is being destroyed. Neither the U.S. nor Europe have ever drawn a thick red line and made it crystal clear to Moscow in advance that an invasion of Georgia would be unacceptable and would have grave consequences.

This conflict did not appear out of the blue. We have known for some time that the Russians had plans for regime change in Georgia. Over two years ago, a senior Western official told me that President Putin was already looking into executing such a strategy. We have seen the Russian policy of pressuring Georgia unfold in front of our eyes. We have watched the Russian military exercise for an invasion. One only had to read the Russian press, follow the Russian debate, and talk to senior Russian officials to know that they were spoiling for a fight with Georgia. When a close European friend of mine told a senior Russian official in late July that he was planning to visit Georgia in September, the response was that he might want to go sooner and that September might be too late. It was.

The great debate will now begin. There will be those who will insist that the West did too much and encouraged or even emboldened the Georgians. And then there will be those who will argue that we did not do enough to prevent this war and to save Georgia. Put me firmly in the latter camp. If the West had taken these mounting tensions more seriously, this war could have been prevented. At the time, it looked too hard. Now there are many who wish they would have acted before it was too late.

Ronald D. Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center and responsible for strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. These views are his own.