Holbrooke on Answering Russia

Former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, on the ground in Tbilisi and writing in the Washington Post, reminds us that we are winning in Georgia and explains how we can proceed to final victory over neo-Soviet Russia:

Given the tremendous damage Russia inflicted on Georgia, it is easy to conclude that Moscow has achieved its objectives. But so far Moscow has failed in its real goal — getting rid of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-democracy, pro-American president. To be sure, Russia has tightened its control of the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It shattered the Georgian military, grievously damaged Georgia’s economy and stirred up discord within the Western alliance. For three years, it has tried every conceivable tactic to bring him down — fomenting a domestic uprising, imposing an economic blockade, beefing up its forces in the enclaves and finally a war. Yet Saakashvili is still in power.

Here in Tbilisi, tension is understandably high. Russian tanks are less than 25 miles away, and the wheat fields along the main road to Gori were ablaze, set on fire by Russian troops, as I drove through Russian checkpoints to get to that deserted, occupied city last Saturday. (Most memorable sight: drunken Russian soldiers in stolen Georgian uniforms — “because they are better than ours.”)

The Russian invasion of Georgia will reshape the strategic landscape the next U.S. president confronts. But as the West debates how to “punish Russia,” it is vital to remember that the main front is still in Georgia. Talk about taking away the 2014 Winter Olympics or ejecting Russia from the G-8 group of major industrial nations may (or may not) have some effect on Moscow, but the most important thing the West can do now is strengthen the government in Tbilisi. The equation is simple: If Mikheil Saakashvili survives, Vladimir Putin loses.

The intense personal hatred between these men overlays two centuries of tortured history between Russia and Georgia. Many have reported that Putin simply “loses it” when discussing the upstart Saakashvili, who led his country from near bankruptcy into a golden age of economic growth and the world’s highest rate of foreign direct investment as a percentage of GDP. All this has been halted by Russian tanks.

Moscow has probably lost its chance to remove Saakashvili by overt force, although sinister, more stealthy means cannot be ruled out. Having just had dinner with him in a public restaurant, I wish his security was a little tighter. (His predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze was a near-miss target for several assassination attempts that are widely believed to have been Russian-directed.) Moscow’s best hope now is that the Georgian economy will crumble rapidly, the currency will collapse and an unhappy populace, encouraged by some opposition leader (perhaps bankrolled by Moscow), will force Saakashvili from power.

The Western response to this challenge must go beyond rhetoric. What matters most right now is massive economic and military assistance. Public commitments to help rebuild Georgia are the best way to prevent Russia from achieving its goal. Prime Minister Vladimir Gurgenidze estimates that rebuilding railroads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure will cost at least $1 billion; this does not include humanitarian relief, refugee resettlement costs or rebuilding Georgia’s military. Gurgenidze also foresees negative economic growth, a huge budget deficit and a collapse of tourism, which was just taking off in this beautiful country.

Sen. Joe Biden has called for an immediate $1 billion supplemental appropriation, a proposal quickly endorsed by Barack Obama. But the Bush administration has not yet been specific on economic support. Congress will be in session only briefly before the election, and a supplemental will pass only if it is pursued vigorously by President Bush as a bipartisan measure. Even if delayed until next year, its immediate proposal by Bush and endorsement by both presidential candidates would help morale in Georgia. American support must be matched by the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

In the long run, Georgia and Russia must coexist peacefully. Here, Georgia must do its part. Saakashvili, an immensely talented 41-year-old, saved his country from utter collapse in 2003. But he must think strategically about the future. On occasion, he has berated the Europeans for insufficient support — not a good tactic for someone trying to join the European Union — and has used rhetoric about Moscow that, while understandable, only increases the danger to himself. For centuries Georgia has struggled to live with its giant neighbor. Saakashvili cannot pick up his tiny country and move it to Mexico. He has to manage the situation with greater care.

There will be consequences, of course, for Russia’s relations with the West. But those decisions will be made by the next president. (Bush’s inattentiveness to this Russian threat — dramatically illustrated by his literal embrace of Putin in Beijing as Russian tanks rolled into Georgia — may have led Moscow to think it could get away with its invasion.) While the West is not going to war over Georgia, Russia must understand that it will pay for using force, or the threat of force, against neighbors that were once part of the Soviet space. This is especially true for Ukraine and Azerbaijan, which are likely to be Moscow’s next targets for intimidation. The rules of the post-Cold War world are changing — but not to the ultimate benefit of Russia, which has underestimated the unifying effect its actions will have on the West. Exactly how these relationships evolve depends on what each side does in the coming weeks — especially in Georgia.

4 responses to “Holbrooke on Answering Russia

  1. An interesting article, only that I believe time will prove the writer wrong. I don’t think Europe’s response will be that dynamic due to strong economic relations with Russia, while the next US President will have more pressing issues to tackle (Afghanistan and Iraq) as well as taking imnto consideration Russia’s economic ties and access to rogue states. I also worry about Georgia’s economy. The infrastructure may be repaired but foreign investments and tourist are likely to face problems. Even if Saakashvili survives, will he be openly anti-Russia as before?
    Maybe only in words.

  2. Holbrooke was right to fear for his personal safety when dining with Saakhashvili: If indeed Russia has yet to succeed in it’s “goal” of getting rid of Saakhashvili, it’s only because Moscow has herself ordered her tanks to grind to a respectable halt in compliance with questionable peace terms. Having fled the country with the opening of war, American troops (read: “advisors”–and we well know to whom Americans are referring when we use the term) were surely in no position by which they might defend Saakhashvili’s honor–not with Moscow soon to govern events inside the country.

    And a lone American warship in Georgian port? A trifle, in fact. Walk loudly and carry a small stick, in this instance. Major foreign policy failure for the U.S. here. This time we fully deserve it. First, Bush insists on a disadvantageous foreign policy in the Caucausus, and now Obama and Biden. A genuine breakdown within American education here. Wholesale stupidity.

    LA RUSSOPHOBE RESPONDS:

    That’s interesting, Misha. So you feel that the threats of the entire outside world, the presence of the Chancellor of Germany and the U.S. Secretary of State, and the dispatch of American warships all had nothing to do with it, Russia simply decided on its own, out of the goodness of its heart, to stop?

    Presumably, if America invades Chechnya and then stops at Voronezh without moving on Moscow, Russians will not be offended but rather will be impressed by American restraint.

    You do realize, Misha, that you are quite insane.

  3. Few are ‘threatening’ Russia outside the Bush administration, it seems. I claim two reasonably close friends within the Bundestag, and I can guarantee you that Berlin presently has it’s eyes on Russia’s oil and natural gas, and less on supporting a potentially-cockeyed American military adventure into the Black Sea and Georgia, my young and emotionally-harried friend.

    I’ve also a couple of aged Knight’s Cross-holding friends who’ll likely be more than happy to explain to you just how far American ground forces would get in attempting an assault on Russian soil–to say nothing of an American spearhead aimed for Voronezh and the Russian heartland. Better work on your knowledge of WWII history, La Russ.

    I say again that Russian forces in Georgia stopped of their own accord, and by their own timetable. To be sure, there were no American forces present capable of stopping Medvedev’s armor in any event–and the Russians are equally unlikely to be much impressed by–nor fearful of–Condi’s credentials as a specialist in Russian affairs.

    We were caught napping in Georgia largely because we’ve spent too much time dawdling (aka “surging”) in Iraq and Afghanistan, La Russ. A three-time Bush-supporter, this is, thankfully, my last time around the block with this incredibly arrogant and short-sighted clan. It galls me to admit that Kerry was right about Bush and his war. It truly embarrasses me to no end.

    That said, thanks for providing the blog, La Russ. I may not agree with much of anything you say, but I love discussing Russia.

  4. Mishka, your self-gratifying talk of mighty Medvedev’s “armor” including your pittiful attempts to put third grade, post-soviet wanabe millitary force on the same plane with US army is quite bizzare and fits well with editorial drek one usually finds on Russian internet. Yeah, and your WWll Voronezh would not be Russian today if the US did not send help to you naked-ass soldiers/gun-fodder. Also, you should stop parakeeting Russian hysteria about American advisors/soldiers “defending” Georgia. There were few advisors training basic self-defense and police force – not a secret but a routine service US forces perform in many countries around the world. Definetely not a preparation to stop or prevent an attack of a “major” army.

    Definetely they were stoped after the two stooges were informed by world leaders that Russia will face severe consequences if they dont withdraw. Look at what happened to foreign investment leaving Russia by “truck-loads”. In fact, this invasion marks a turning-point in Putin’s luck.

    Your delusional discussion of German motives are totally off-base when you claim that it has its own little secret foreign-policy dealings with Putin – gas in exchange for Georgia ?
    With the same twisted logic, are we going to hear from you soon that Germany has secret negotiations with Kremlin to divide Ukraine and Poland ?

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