Russia and Georgia: Getting a Better Perspective

In our anger at Russia’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, we branded the mujahideen as freedom fighters and provided them with sophisticated weapons which enabled them to drive out the Russians. But the reality was much more complex than the black and white picture painted by most news reports of the time or “Charlie Wilson’s War” today.

If one delved deeply enough, it was possible to find reports of mujahideen chanting, “Death to America!” soon after receiving American weapons, including deadly Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Our aid helped create Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the tragedy of 9/11.

And, in a 1998 interview claiming partial credit for the downfall of the Soviet Union, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, made a startling admission: “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began … after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 [almost six months before the Soviet invasion] that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention [which would then mire the Russians in their own Viet Nam and lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union].”

To avoid repeating such tragic mistakes with potentially global implications, we need to respond rationally, rather than in anger, to the current war between Russia and Georgia, and better understand its complexities. While there is truth in the mainstream American news coverage which pictures the Russian bear mauling a helpless, much smaller Georgia, there is another perspective which again can be found by digging deeper.

Because mainstream American press coverage has adequately presented one view of the situation, the following excerpts emphasize only the opposing viewpoint. Neither by itself provides a balanced picture but viewed together, as if through stereoscopic glasses, those two perspectives provide more depth and have the potential to help avoid a nuclear catastrophe.

Doug Bandow, former special assistant to President Reagan, writes that “some NATO advocates argue that peace would reign had the Western alliance offered Georgia a Membership Action Plan last spring [when President Bush lobbied for it, but was held back by Western European concerns]. Actually, Georgian and Russian perceptions of potential NATO support for Georgia almost certainly radicalized both sides, making war all but certain. … The expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders risks having a similar impact [as the alliances which caused World War I]. … With the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, … there was no longer any necessity for an American security guarantee for the Western Europeans; there was no conceivable reason to expand American defense commitments up to Russia’s border. Doing so has proved to make the world more rather than less dangerous … Ironically, the prospect of Georgian membership in NATO essentially forced Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to respond to Tbilisi’s attempt at a blitzkrieg conquest of South Ossetia.”

Dimitri Simes, president of The Nixon Center and a former advisor to President Nixon writes, “It is remarkable, but probably inevitable, that so many in Washington have reacted with surprise and outrage to Russia’s response to President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempt to reestablish Georgian control over South Ossetia by force. Some of the angriest statements come from those inside and outside the Bush administration who contributed, I assume unwittingly, to making this crisis happen. We should also disregard the hysterical diatribes of Saakashvili’s American champions, who protest too much – perhaps because their irresponsible encouragement of the Georgian president was a contributing factor on the road to the war. … many both outside and even inside the Bush administration predicted that the U.S. decision to champion Kosovo independence without Serbian consent would lead Moscow to become more assertive in establishing its presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia [because the issues raised by the three breakaway regions bear many similarities]. The Kremlin made abundantly clear that it would view Kosovo’s independence without Serbian consent and a UN Security Council mandate as a precedent for the two Georgian de facto independent enclaves.”

Dr. Ted Galen Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute writes, “One passage in the president’s statement is cause for alarm, however. He announced that he was directing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to execute a ‘humanitarian mission to the people of Georgia, headed by the United States military.’ … Without a reliable truce in place, U.S. military forces would be entering a volatile war zone. Moreover, there was no indication that Bush was asking the Russians for permission. Indeed, his statement had all the characteristics of a demand – or a dare. . … The arrogance of that position is breathtaking. When a major cyclone created widespread devastation in Burma earlier this year, some proponents of humanitarian aid urged the U.S. military to compel delivery even in the teeth of opposition from the Burmese junta. American leaders rejected their pleas, however, deeming such an operation to be too dangerous. Apparently that situation was considered more dangerous than barging into a war zone where the military forces of a nuclear-armed power are conducting military operations. Washington is creating a situation in which one nervous or trigger-happy Russian soldier could ignite an extremely ugly and perilous confrontation. … the Bush administration is taking an extraordinary risk for very limited stakes. There might be some places in the world that are less relevant than Georgia to the security and liberty of the American people, but it would take a concerted search to find them. The conflict in Georgia is a tragedy with murky roots, and one certainly grieves for the innocent people caught up in the violence. But it will solve nothing for the United States to blunder into that conflict.”

As further evidence that such views do not emanate solely from left-leaning liberals, conservative leader Patrick Buchanan’s writes, “Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to use the opening of the Olympic Games to cover Georgia’s invasion of its breakaway province of South Ossetia must rank in stupidity with Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s decision to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. … After shelling and attacking what he claims is his own country, killing scores of his own Ossetian citizens and sending tens of thousands fleeing into Russia, Saakashvili’s army was whipped back into Georgia in 48 hours. … American charges of Russian aggression ring hollow. Georgia started this fight – Russia finished it. People who start wars don’t get to decide how and when they end. … That Putin took the occasion of Saakashvili’s provocative and stupid stunt to administer an extra dose of punishment is undeniable. But is not Russian anger understandable? For years the West has rubbed Russia’s nose in her Cold War defeat and treated her like Weimar Germany. … For a decade, some of us have warned about the folly of getting into Russia’s space and getting into Russia’s face. The chickens of democratic imperialism have now come home to roost – in Tbilisi.”

I wish to reemphasize that, for the reasons mentioned earlier, the above excerpts do not present a balanced picture. They put more emphasis on American mistakes than is warranted by the complete picture which results when they are combined with the mainstream American viewpoint. There is, however, an advantage to each nation focusing on its own errors since that is where it has the most ability to improve things. Americans therefore stand to gain the most by considering the above viewpoint, and I encourage individuals from other nations to undertake a similar process of introspection.

If you found this email helpful, I hope you will share it with others, visit the associated website (http://nuclearrisk.org), and sign up for future such updates in the JOIN US box in the left margin. I also encourage you to take a look at email #4 on the Resources Page (http://nuclearrisk.org/resources.php), which highlights another, largely-overlooked, but extremely dangerous situation that could produce a second Cuban missile crisis. Thank you.

Martin
================================
Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University

Links to complete articles excerpted above:

For a contrarian view of our Kosovo policy by Mark Kramer, director of Harvard University’s Project on Cold War Studies, see “Welcome to Kosovo, the Next Failed State?”

If you missed any earlier emails to the group, they are at http://nuclearrisk.org/resources.php along with other resources.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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