Georgia-Russia Conflict Over South Ossetia: Why the U.S. Must Reassess its Policy Toward Russia


The conflict between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia has rocked the international scene and destabilized relations with both nations. (Lee Allen/Biloxi Sun-Herald/MCT)

Published: August 28, 2008

On Aug. 7, Georgian troops launched a surprise attack on the country’s separatist province of South Ossetia, just hours after agreeing to observe a ceasefire and hold Russia-mediated talks. In response to the actions taken by Georgia, Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia on Aug. 8, to protect South Ossetians, many of whom had been granted Russian citizenship. That same day, a large contingent of retired foreign policy experts from the Cold War era awoke from hibernation and set to writing Op-Eds in the nation’s leading publications, evoking images of the “Russian Bear.” There would be little objection to this type of American posturing, if we were dealing with the same Russia of 1962. However, Russia is no longer the expanding Soviet Union which we addressed with a policy of containment, nor is it a completely democratic nation that can fully align with the West. The United States needs to reassess its policies toward Russia, in order to ensure security and stability, nationally and internationally, into the 21st century.

When dealing with Russia, it is important to understand that Russia’s policy toward its neighbors is greatly shaped by its quest to maintain its oligarchy on energy in the region. Its leaders understand that the nations which control energy resources will have the most dominance and influence in the international scene. Although Russia portrays military operations in its separatist Chechen region as a war on terrorism, the true purpose is to control existing and future pipelines. Russia frequently uses its gas reserves as a tool of intimidation against neighboring Ukraine, a country which imports its gas from Russia. The situation in Georgia is no different, in that it is also tied to energy hegemony. Georgia is located in the Caucasus, with a border on the Black Sea, which puts the country in a loccation important to the West’s energy supply. The pipelines which run through Georgia eliminate Georgia’s dependence on Russian energy and are thus a target. Russia will continue to act in accordance with its interest of maintaining energy dominance, and it will use this as a bargaining tool to undermine international cooperation.

The Russian reaction to Georgia’s surprise attack shed light on the Kremlin’s mentality. Neither South Ossetia nor the other seperatist region Abkhazia want to be part of Georgia. Although Russia has stated that it does not have plans to annex these regions, there is no question that Russia’s military operations in Georgia were primarily intended to support the two separatist pro-Russian provinces, while destabilizing Georgia, a country that has strengthened its ties to the West and has been edging closer to membership in NATO. Thus, it is no coincidence that just hours after Georgia’s surprise attack, Russia’s special envoy to South Ossetia declared that Georgia’s military operation demonstrated that it “cannot be trusted” and called on NATO to reconsider plans to offer Georgia membership.

South Ossetia can be seen as Russia’s equivalent to Kosovo, whose independence from Russian-backed Serbia was internationally recognized this past February to Russia’s displeasure. The Russians have accused Georgians of “ethnic cleansing” in South Ossetia. While the number of deaths has been disputed, Georgia and South Ossetia have had on and off skirmishes since 1991, resulting in over 100,000 displaced South Ossetian refugees.

However, the West’s support of Kosovo was obviously not the only factor that pushed Russia over the edge; the Bush Administration has needlessly provoked Russia by making plans for missile-defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic. Although the United States first claimed that missile interceptors positioned in Europe were necessary to obstruct a potential attack from Iran, Russia still saw this as a threat. Of course, the majority of experts doubt that Iran has missiles capable of reaching Poland, much less the United States. However, Poland wanted to upgrade its aging air defense capabilities, and the United States, busy with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was desperate for allies and more than willing to press ahead with its security plans at the expense of relations with Russia. This type of behavior is extremely dangerous and ultimately undermines our national security.

The current administration has steadily worked to provoke the Russian Federation, while its policy toward Iraq has chipped away at the diplomatic options which are crucial to American security. Because of the Iraq War, the U.S. has eroding moral and political ground from which to negotiate with Russia. Unfortunately, the actions of this administration toward Russia do not reflect that the U.S. realizes it has lost some degree of authority. In light of the Georgia-Russia conflict, President Bush suddenly became interested in “territorial integrity.” Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee who has made public jokes about bombing Iran, ironically scolded Russia by saying, “Nations don’t invade other nations.”

Russia is a key player on the world stage, and the United States needs its cooperation on a number of international issues. The next administration must employ several strategies to improve its relationship with Russia while also creating diplomatic options.  First, it must end the unnecessary provocations, which serve only to infuriate the Russian Federation. While nations that want to join NATO should be free to do so without fear of Russian reaction, the steps toward NATO membership should be taken slowly and more cautiously. Second, the U.S. must set a good example in order to have the moral authority with which to negotiate. American stubbornness has made us alienate our allies and has hindered our diplomatic options. Third, the U.S. must strive to achieve energy independence, which will restrain Russia’s bargaining power. We must put ourselves in a comfortable position from which to negotiate.

Last, the next administration must realize that Russia wants to be taken seriously. The Georgian-South Ossetian conflict has shown that if Russia does not receive the respect that it feels it deserves, it will forcibly demand it. Russia was fully aware that its actions in Georgia would fundamentally alter its relationship with the United States and yet the Russian Federation proceeded, because it wanted to show its displeasure with its current role in the world. It is especially unhappy with the United States’ and Western Europe’s perceived motivations to limit Russia’s influence over its neighbors and former client states. Although Condoleezza Rice and President Bush have threatened to isolate Russia by expelling it from the Group of Eight, by threatening to abolish the NATO-Russia Council and by keeping Russia out of the World Trade Organization, this type of pressure is ineffectual. If Russia’s opinion is continuously discounted in those forums, what is the point of its attendance?

Going forward, the Russian Federation can either become a great ally or a powerful enemy. The next administration’s relationship with Russia will affect many key issues of national and international security. Thus, the United States must reassess its policy toward Russia while it is still a matter of choice and not one of inevitability.