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Aug 22, 2008

Russia looks beyond Bush.

By Alan Stoga

Even as Russian tank drivers slowly transform themselves from aggressors into self-styled peacekeepers, there are two competing narratives describing the brief Georgian-Russian war.
The first is that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, long time darling of Washington’s neo-cons, could not possibly have been surprised by the harsh Russian reaction after he sent his troops into South Ossetia.
Baiting a bear is always a risky game, but Saakashvili’s bet may have been that President Bush (or at least Vice President Cheney) would rally to his side. In this telling, the Georgians were ready to trade some casualties now for renewed support from the U.S. and Europe—especially before Bush becomes an even lamer duck.
The second explanation is that South Ossetia was simply an opportunity for Vladimir Putin to start rolling back the Bush pro-democracy doctrine, at least as it applies to former Soviet territories like Georgia and the Ukraine. Although the exact timing might have been provoked by Georgian adventurism, it was also a wonderful chance to embarrass Bush at the Olympics.
In either case, it is clear that the Russians wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States. Prime example: the Russians did not interfere as we flew 2,000 Georgian soldiers home from Iraq, at the height of the conflict. The military-to-military message was as clear as was the politician-to-politician message.
So much for the good news.
The bad news is pretty bad.
First, the Russians will certainly continue to reassert what they see as their national interests in their region. When President Medvedev said he is obligated “to defend the life and honor of Russian citizens wherever they may be,” he was talking about Georgia—but also about 8 million Russians in the Ukraine, 4.5 million in Kazakhstan and 1.2 million in the Baltics.
Second, the Russian foreign minister’s declaration to “forget about any discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity” clearly signaled that the Russians are now ready to reshape their post-Soviet borders. Not just South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, but possibly Crimea in the Ukraine, as well as parts of Moldova, Estonia and Latvia.
Third, by placing American troops and a Patriot missile battery in Poland, the Bush administration has guaranteed that the Russians will further raise the stakes. It has also started to create facts that seem intended to prevent the next president, whether McCain or Obama, from changing key elements of Bush’s foreign policy.
That could be the worst news of all.

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