Monday, September 08, 2008

Why Georgia Really Means...

Recent events in the caucuses has meant that Georgia may mean more than Bulldog football for many Americans.

The effort by the Eurasian nation of Georgia to repatriate the breakaway region of South Ossetia by force and its consequent rebuffing by Russian forces (claiming to stand in defense of Ossetian independence), has reignited concerns about Russian efforts to reassert itself in the world, and has injected itself into U.S. Presidential politics.

Following Russia's brushing aside of the U.S.-advised Georgian forces (one thousand U.S. troops were in-country training the Georgian military only months ago), and their de-facto control of the country, the subject has, surprisingly, drifted off the cable news tickers and newspaper front pages.

Despite the quiet, the Russian-Georgian conflict represents a shift in the power and influence that has yet to be absorbed by many in this country.

George Friedman, of the private intelligence group Stratfor, has penned a fascinating and quick read in the New York Review of Books that lays out why Georgia really matters, and what it says about the state of American power in the world.

...the United States, along with other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when its military was in shambles and its government was paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s and 1980s. The Russians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The United States had assumed that they would not risk the consequences of an invasion. 
If that was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation: the Russians had changed dramatically, along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed the opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they could invade Georgia, and the United States and Europe could not meaningfully respond. They did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there was no force to counter them. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite well—indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the Russians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the Americans need the Russians more than the Russians need the Americans. Moscow's calculus was that this was the moment to strike. The Russians had been building up to it for months, and they struck. 

The rest of the article explains the complex relationship the U.S. has with the Russians, how the Europeans are in no position to argue, the general sense of dismissal towards Russian potential to project strength, Russia's own rise to economic prominence due to energy resources, and the fact that the U.S. has tied itself down tight in Iraq.

In other words, the Russians have backed the Americans into a corner. The Europeans, who for the most part lack expeditionary military forces and are dependent upon Russian energy exports, have even fewer options. If nothing else happens, the Russians will have demonstrated that though they are not a global power by any means, they have resumed their role as a significant regional power with lots of nuclear weapons and an economy that is less shabby now than in the past. Russia has also compelled every state on its periphery to reevaluate its position relative to Moscow. That is what the Russians wanted to demonstrate, and they have demonstrated it.

Georgia has been pushing for entrance into NATO, the military alliance that stood in opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Recent acceptance into NATO by other countries formerly under Russian influence or control-such as Poland-have helped fuel the growing tension between a re-emergent Russian under former Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the West.

Handling a more confident and powerful Russian bear will be a major challenge for the next President. While President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush's father skillfully managed the turbulent breakup of the Soviet Union, the younger Bush has been able to tend to it only a fraction of the time. Meanwhile Putin was slowly regrouping the strings of power. Bush was happy to welcome the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (which has since lost its luster as the nations splits over its decision to lean east or west) and the Rose Revolution in Georgia. 

Yet neither nation has turned into a bastion of freedom and both are looking askance at Bush while keeping one eye on the bear sitting next to them.

Far from a wave of new democracies in the former Soviet Sphere, we are now left with a newly assertive Russia, proud to reclaim its former spheres of influence (those were fighting words in the Cold War) and happily thumbing their nose at the United States as we spend billions in Iraq. 

- Murphy

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