I agree that Russia is politically isolated at the moment. However, Putin's charge that there were elements in the White House that encouraged Saakashvili to attack Tskhinvali cannot be dismissed out of hand.
I am sure that the State Department did its best to restrain Saakashvili. Former ambassador to Georgia Dick Miles gave a speech a couple of months ago pointing out that Russia would certainly intervene massively if Georgia tried to take Tskhinvali. Given the reaction of the Vice President and Senator McCain, one does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to surmise that they welcome the Russian intervention.
Of course, the Russian intervention was brutal and an overreaction. Their continued occupation of checkpoints in Georgian territory in violation of the cease-fire agreement is outrageous. However, most commentary has failed to note that U.S. and NATO actions over the past decade have set the stage for the Russian reaction. NATO bombed Serbia over human rights abuses in its sovereign territory without UN approval. It has occupied Kosovo ever since. Then, recently, the U.S. and many other countries recognized Kosovo independence, even though it is not independent in the full sense. It is, in fact a ward of NATO, which must still occupy it to keep order. At each stage of this process Russia protested, and before the recognition of Kosovo's independence warned that they considered South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Pridniestr comparable situations.
We now say that Russia must respect the "territorial integrity" of Georgia. The Russians can answer that they appealed in vain for the U.S. and NATO to do just that in the case of Serbia, to no avail. The U.S. said that they had to recognize Kosovo's independence because the Kosovars would never live under Serbian rule again given what had happened. Isn't that precisely what the Ossetians and Abkhazians are saying in respect to Georgian rule? Do they have any justification for feeling that way? Has everyone forgotten that one of the first things Gamsakhurdia did when he was elected to lead Georgia was to revoke the autonomy of South Ossetia and when the Ossetians resisted, laid siege to Tskhinvali in the middle of the winter? Gorbachev was too distracted, too weak politically at the moment, and too wary of using force (lest it lead to civil war) to intervene in Georgia, but the Ossetians fought back, and soon Georgia dissolved in a civil war of Georgians against Georgians. Only with Shevardnadze's return--and the help of Russian peacekeepers--was any semblance of order restored.
Let's face it. Georgia was handed its independence. Georgians did not have to fight the Soviet Union or Russia for it. And the first thing they did was to try to subdue minorities in their midst and fight among themselves.
Oh, and--by the way--when President George H.W. Bush spoke in Kiev on August 1, 1991, and warned the non-Russian republics to avoid "suicidal nationalism," he was referring to Gamsakhurdia's attempt to subdue South Ossetia by force. (We briefed the press on this point, but not much got through in the coverage.)
So far as respecting the territorial integrity of other countries, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq without UNSC sanction also set an unfortunate precedent. (And, one might argue, the protection of the Kurds from Saddam Hussein in sovereign Iraq.) Appeals to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act have little resonance because one of these principles (which was observed during the Cold War, and right up to and through the dissolution of the Soviet Union) was that recognized borders can only be changed by mutual consent. The formal recognition of Kosovo independence without Serbia's approval was a direct violation of this principle.
It should have been evident, from at least 1993, that the only way Georgia would regain sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be by letting tempers cool, developing their economy, and convincing--over time--the Ossetians and Abkhazians that they would be safer under Georgian sovereignty than as Russian-supported ministates. I believe Eduard Shevardnaze understood this, and whatever his other failings may have been, such as an inability to bring corruption under control, he did his best to avoid violent flare-ups. Saakashvili rejected this course and recklessly fell into the trap the Russians set. He is not stupid, and I can only conclude that he had been encouraged to believe that the U.S. would support an attempt to retake, first South Ossetia, then Abkhazia by force. This was the rationale for sending 2,000 Georgians to Iraq--to obligate the U.S., and eventually NATO, to support Georgia's territorial ambitions.
If such encouragement was given by elements of the Bush administration, it was utterly irresponsible. In other conflicts over territorial sovereignty, the U.S. has normally avoided taking sides but insisting that conflicting claims be settled peacefully, by negotiation, no matter how long it takes. (Note China and Taiwan or Kashmir, or Kurdish claims to parts of Turkey, etc., etc.) To have encouraged even implicitly a Georgian attempt (once again!) to impose its rule on Tskhinvali by force was utterly irresponsible.
I have not even spoken of some other geopolitical aspects. The U.S. sponsorship for Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO is clearly part of the picture. Under normal NATO rules, neither country qualifies. Georgia because it has unresolved territorial issues. In the past this has always been one of the criteria for NATO membership. Ukraine would not qualify under normal criteria applied because, as of now, the majority of Ukrainians do not want to be in NATO and an effort to bring Ukraine into NATO would almost certainly split the country and virtually force Russia to demand a referendum in the Crimea on Ukrainian sovereignty. Want to guess who is likely to win that referendum? Or what would happen if Ukraine were to refuse it and try to remove the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol when the current lease runs out? Or, if NATO would attempt military maneuvers in Ukraine?
One of my most difficult tasks as Ambassador in Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s was telling the delegations from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (they always came separately) that even though we did not recognize their incorporation into the Soviet Union and totally sympathized with their desire for independence, we could not recognize their governments as independent until they were in fact. (This was always a disappointment, and many Baltic Americans and their supporters clamored for U.S. recognition when Lithuania declared independence in March 1990. The USG steadfastly resisted these appeals, not because we did not think that Lithuania was entitled to independence, but because we knew that if the US recognized Lithuanian independence at that point, the Soviet Union would intervene massively, either with Gorbachev's reluctant approval, or following a successful coup to remove him.) I had a second message for my Lithuanian interlocutors: if Soviet forces intervened, no matter how brutally, the U.S. could not help them. We were not going to risk a nuclear war. Therefore, the Baltic struggle to regain independence had to be peaceful, regardless of provocations. Of which there were many. But the Balts managed to keep their drive for independence peaceful and, for that reason, were successful in their struggle. And the U.S. helped by not turning the drive for Baltic independence into an implicit military contest.
I will yield to no one in my love for Georgia, Georgian culture, even the Georgian language. (I don't really speak it, but I can read the alphabet, have read two speeches in Georgian with extensive preparation, and even designed a Georgian font for my dot-matrix printer before any were available off the shelf.) But experience tells me that Georgia's future lies in developing the areas it really controls, making clear that it will not use force to try to regain South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and taking care--the way the Finns have done ever since the Winter War--not to poke Russia in the eye. Nothing can weaken any country more in the long run than trying to rule people who don't want to be ruled. Why not use foreign aid to rebuild, to integrate the refugees into Georgian society, to improve the economy and reduce corruption? If Liechtenstein can stay neutral, Monaco self-governing, and other mini-states scattered around Europe, why can't, at least for a time, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? (Russia is unlikely, barring further "provocations," to take them in formally.)
Saakashvili has made a serious mistake in letting Georgia become the spark of a great power confrontation. Nobody is going to benefit from this, for both Russia and the United States have much more important issues to deal with, particularly as regards nuclear weapons, terrorism and energy supplies. I believe that Russia's reaction has damaged Russian interests and that the evident attempt to use a form of Russophobia in the U.S. election campaign is very damaging to U.S. interests. But the country that will suffer most if the confrontation becomes more militarized will be Georgia. It needs a leader who understands this.
Ambassador Jack Matlock is a retired career Foreign Service Officer, now at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, the Foreign Service's leading Soviet expert in the 1970 and 1980's, ambassador to Czechoslovakia ('81-'83), served three times in our Moscow embassy, as ambassador from 1987 to 1991 (certainly one of the most critical periods ever). Among his many publications (books) covering that period: "Autopsy of an Empire" and "Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended."