New Errors in Georgia

While the wire services bounce back and forth between declaring that Russian forces are attempting to hold Gori or leaving Gori, President Bush has made a statement that promises to embed the United States more deeply in the conflict, and French President Sarkozy has brokered a cease-fire deal that gives the Russians much of what they want and will be hard to square with, for example, Senator McCain’s position.

First, the Sarko peace deal.  As described here, it offered six provisions:

  1. the sides in the conflict should abstain from using force;
  2. all military activities would be terminated;
  3. all persons in the region should have free access to humanitarian aid;
  4. Georgian forces would return to their positions of permanent location before the conflict started;
  5. Russian forces are to withdraw at their previous position but would be allowed to take additional security measures until an international peacekeeping mechanism was set in place;
  6. there was to be a start of the international discussion of the future status of Georgia’s breakaway provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

However, Georgian President Saakashvili rejected the sixth provision, as discussions of “future status” implied ambiguity about the nature of the two provinces, and Russia accepted, removing reference to future status.

The interesting thing about this deal is that it gives Russia much of what it has been saying it wanted, and looks eerily similar to what happened in Kosovo.  In Kosovo, NATO won the war, established a deterrent military presence in Kosovo, and kicked the can of the hard questions down the road. 

What Russia will likely do now — again, this is subject to change as events on the ground are changing by the minute — is withdraw from territories outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, appearing to make a “concession” by doing so, in order to press its case for leaving behind a much stronger “peacekeeping” force in the two provinces.

The Sarkozy plan doesn’t appear to offer much resistance to that model, which for obvious reasons the Georgians see as undesirable.  Recall that less than 10 years after the war in Kosovo, Kosovo had been pried from Serbia and its independence had been recognized by the United States and Western Europe.  Since before the Western powers recognized Kosovo, Russian officials warned that they saw a precedent for South Ossetia and other separatist regions in the former Soviet Union.

The Western powers, of course, did not deal with the objections from Russia, and recognized Kosovo as a newly independent country anyway earlier this year.  At that point, observers began claiming that “Russia’s bluff had been called” regarding outright recognition of the separatist provinces, but failed to address the prospect for catastrophic miscalculation by one of the relevant parties.  Which has obviously happened in Georgia.

Now, President Bush is dispatching Condoleezza Rice to Paris and then Tbilisi, and is promising a humanitarian mission will enter Georgia in the form of the U.S. military.  The relevant paragraphs from his statement:

I’ve also directed Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to begin a humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia, headed by the United States military. This mission will be vigorous and ongoing. A U.S. C-17 aircraft with humanitarian supplies is on its way. And in the days ahead we will use U.S. aircraft, as well as naval forces, to deliver humanitarian and medical supplies.

We expect Russia to honor its commitment to let in all forms of humanitarian assistance. We expect Russia to ensure that all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, airports, roads, and airspace, remain open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and for civilian transit. We expect Russia to meet its commitment to cease all military activities in Georgia. And we expect all Russian forces that entered Georgia in recent days to withdraw from that country.

The italicized portions represent two parts of the statement that present big, dangerous issues.

Issue One: Where will U.S. troops be, what will they be doing, and how long will they be doing it?  Is the president saying that he expects the Russians to open lines of transport through South Ossetia to U.S. troops?  South Ossetia is recognized as part of Georgian territory.  But it seems awfully unlikely that the Russians are going to accept U.S. military personnel in South Ossetia alongside their peacekeepers, which, while they act in a lot of ways that have less to do with keeping peace and more to do with keeping Russian influence over the region, the Russians argue are there in accordance with the 1992 Sochi agreement.  Saakashvili, for his part, rushed to the telephone to tell the New York Times that he interpreted Bush’s statement as promising “definitely an American military presence.”  (Side question: What military assets are Western European powers or NATO powers contributing?)

Issue Two: the Bush statement seems to call for all additional Russian forces inserted into South Ossetia to be withdrawn.  But if the theory about the Kosovo model is right, the Russians will most likely want to leave behind some of those forces in South Ossetia to shore up its influence in the province as NATO left troops behind in Kosovo.  What happens if the Russians leave several thousand additional troops behind anyway?

Both these topics deserve more scrutiny from the press and the public.  The president appears to be looking at a much more direct involvement of U.S. troops and resources on Georgian territory.  His restraint heretofore has been prudent; this measure appears much more risky.