Kirk Bennett: “On Treating Ukraine Like Georgia – A Reply to Paul Saunders”

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Date: Sun, 30 Aug 201
From: Kirk Bennett <>

By Kirk Bennett
Kirk Bennett was the Senior Georgia Desk Officer at the State Department from 2007-09.

Kudos to Paul Saunders for his spot-on exposition of U.S. policy in the run-up to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 (“How the U.S. Can Help Solve the Ukraine Crisis: Treat Ukraine Like Georgia?” in The National Interest and Johnson’s Russia List, August 28).  Indeed, the U.S. message to Tbilisi was consistent to the point of monotony – there could be no military solution to the country’s separatist problems, so Georgia must exercise restraint and not react to Russian provocations.  Saunders’ analysis is a welcome refutation of the widespread but baseless conviction that an irresponsible George W. Bush, for no apparent policy reason, foolishly goaded a reckless Misha Saakashvili into attacking Russia.

What is puzzling, however, is the notion that this policy in Georgia was a rousing triumph worthy of emulation in Ukraine.  The Bush Administration, in fact, had only one-half of a winning policy in Georgia; the pressure on Tbilisi to resist provocations was never accompanied by any pressure whatsoever on Moscow to cease provocations.

Russia’s tactic of hybrid warfare in Ukraine received its beta testing in Georgia.  Fully six years before the war Moscow embarked on a series of blatant infringements of Georgian sovereignty – handing out Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and then proclaiming Russia’s right to defend “its” citizens; organizing polling places in the separatist territories during Russian elections; violating Georgian airspace and conducting a missile strike near the village of Tsitelubani in August 2007; sending Russian officials to run the separatist governments (defense ministers, chiefs of staff and heads of security services in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were Russians seconded by Moscow) and to command separatist units (two Russian officers, former “peacekeepers,” were killed in a clash in Abkhazia in early 2008); shooting down an unarmed Georgian UAV over the Black Sea; and illegally deploying railroad troops to Abkhazia.

Georgia Map

Each of these actions was deeply alarming to the Georgians.  None of them generated anything more than a pro forma response from the West.  Individually ignored as inconsequential, collectively they constituted creeping annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia. Confronted by indications of Russian troop movements through the Roki Tunnel into South Ossetia in August 2008 – at a time when summer weather favored the invader, Georgia’s best troops were deployed to Iraq, and military equipment had been stockpiled in western Georgia in anticipation of a Russian move from Abkhazia – Tbilisi gambled on a desperate preemptive strike.  The Georgians did not even request U.S. military assistance; they had been given no reason to hope any would be forthcoming – and it wasn’t.

It is now Ukraine’s turn to face concerted Russian pressure, and the Ukrainians are doing what most people in most countries at most times have done in their situation – they are resisting a foreign invader.  When it comes to “stopping Putin,” Mr. Saunders need not fret about who will do the work – Ukrainians have done, and will continue to do, all the heavy lifting.  They will do so whether they receive security assistance from the West or not, for the simple reason that they value their sovereignty and independence – not because American hawks on some crazed anti-Russian crusade want to “fight to the last Ukrainian” in order to spite Putin.  The analogy is not Hungary in 1956, but Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Ukrainian resistance will continue, if only because Russia – notwithstanding its enormous military advantages – lacks the wherewithal to subdue Ukraine completely.  The misplaced humanitarian concern about sparing Ukrainian lives therefore rests on the curious logic that the more poorly Ukrainians are equipped to fight, the fewer of them will be killed in battle.  Moscow has repeatedly ratcheted up tensions with its smaller neighbors, taking advantage of the restraint that the West has urged on Tbilisi and Kyiv.  The weakness and isolation of Georgia and Ukraine invited Russian invasion.  On the other hand, a credible threat to inflict casualties would be a more logical deterrent to deeper Russian penetration into Ukraine, and a far more effective way to save Ukrainian lives.  It would behoove Ukraine’s Western well-wishers to cease their counsel of despair and stop trying to capitulate preemptively on Kyiv’s behalf.  Rather than assuming they know what’s best for Ukrainians, Western opponents of security assistance might consider the novel idea of asking the Ukrainians themselves whether they would be better or worse off receiving Western defensive capabilities.

The Russian invasion of Georgia could have been dismissed as a one-off, with local roots in ancient, intractable ethnic conflicts, and blame to be shared by a mercurial Georgian president and – for those politically inclined to think so – an inept White House.  However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are, as the saying goes, beginning to see a pattern.  The tactic of bringing maximal pressure for restraint upon the weaker party, while doing nothing to deter the stronger party, has not succeeded in preventing war.  It failed abysmally in Georgia, and would fare no better in Ukraine.  The Obama White House, cautious to a fault and leery of foreign entanglements, seems to be taking aboard this lesson, which was apparently lost on the reputedly bellicose, interventionist, bear-baiting Bush Administration.

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