Belmont Club

What next?

Vice President Dick Cheney spoke to the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Sunday afternoon. The exchange is reported by the AP as:

“The vice president expressed the United States’ solidarity with the Georgian people and their democratically elected government in the face of this threat to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Cheney’s press secretary, Lee Ann McBride, said. Cheney told Saakashvili “Russian aggression must not go unanswered, and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community,” McBride said.

The key terms here are “Russian aggression” and “must not go unanswered”. Cheney obviously spoke privately to Saakashvili, but these phrases are meant for public consumption and read in the Kremlin.

Meanwhile the Washington Post reports that Russia is seeking the ouster of the Georgian President. “The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations suggested Sunday that Russia is seeking “regime change” in Georgia, after Russia’s foreign minister reportedly told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ‘must go.’ ” No significant forward movement by Russian forces was reported in the last 24 hours. Russian sources were signalling that 9,000 more “peacekeepers” and about 350 armored vehicles were being marshaled for deployment and “that for the past two nights, Russian cargo planes have been flying troops and armour into the Black Sea territory which, like South Ossetia, has often said it wants to be part of Russia.”

The Russian demand for the Georgian President’s head, coupled with the pause in tempo and reports of reinforcement may indicate that the leading forces have to regroup and resupply before resuming an offensive. Or they may signal that Russia has achieved all of its strategic objectives, and sated, is now moving to consolidate its gains. But no one knows for sure; and by maintaining ambiguity with regards to its intentions Moscow can retain the political as well as the military initiative into the foreseeable future. The Georgians and the West, being on the defensive, will always hope things have finally stopped and remain as passive as they dare for fear of provoking a further response.

But if the Georgian episode is to have any long term impact on the West, it should really manifest itself in a sharper strategic attitude towards Putin’s government and his likely successors. George Kennan’s great contribution was to frame America’s attitude towards the USSR in such a way that it could free itself from passivity and pursue a consistent strategic goal.

In the late 1940s, his writings inspired the Truman Doctrine and the U.S. foreign policy of “containing” the Soviet Union, thrusting him into a lifelong role as a leading authority on the Cold War. His “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946, and the subsequent 1947 article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” argued that the Soviet regime was inherently expansionist and that its influence had to be “contained” in areas of vital strategic importance to the United States. These texts quickly emerged as foundational texts of the Cold War, expressing the Truman administration’s new anti-Soviet Union policy. Kennan also played a leading role in the development of definitive Cold War programs and institutions, most notably the Marshall Plan.

By adopting a strategic goal the United States liberated itself from the bondage of merely reacting to Stalin’s initiatives. In an implied sense, once possessed of a strategy Truman could embark on a long course of regime change in the Soviet Union, one that was to be achieved by allowing it to collapse upon itself. That would be as if an American diplomat could say, in response to Moscow’s demand for Saakashvili’s head, that maybe Putin’s should go too. Of course they would never say it. The question is whether the entire Georgian episode could ever have such an effect as to allow the thought to temporarily, and however fleetingly, cross a diplomat’s mind.

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