The Georgian War Revisited

Two years ago, war between Georgia and Russia took the world by surprise. It also created the danger that, if President Bush had stood by his earlier promises to Georgia, the world could have stared at the nuclear abyss in a way it had not since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. We did not have to be surprised because there were numerous early warning signs that, if recognized and acted upon, could not only have been foreseen the war, but also prevented it. Unfortunately, a similar lack of foresight is keeping us from seeing similar early warning signs today.

Senator McCain had an OpEd in yesterday’s Washington Post that said in part:

The [Obama] administration has appeared more eager to placate an autocratic Russia than to support a friendly Georgian democracy living under the long shadow of its aggressive neighbor. … the administration has demonstrated little willingness to engage with Georgia’s leadership, to further its NATO aspirations, to help rebuild its defenses or, until recently, even to call Russia’s troop presence in Georgia what it is — an occupation — let alone pressure Russia to withdraw. … Georgia needs U.S. support is in rebuilding its defenses. … This is likely to entail antitank capabilities, air defenses, early-warning radar and other defensive systems that should not be misconstrued as U.S. endorsement for any Georgian use of force against its separatist regions. Georgia will always be less powerful than Russia, but that is no reason to leave it vulnerable two years after a Russian invasion.

It was wise for Senator McCain to caution that Georgia should not misconstrue his proposed military aid and support for its NATO aspirations as “U.S. endorsement for any Georgian use of force against its separatist regions.” Two years ago, our military aid and support for Georgian membership in NATO played important roles in emboldening Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to take actions that led to war. Before Senator McCain’s suggestions are acted upon, it would be prudent to think through how repeating our mistakes of two years ago can be prevented from leading to that same kind of disaster yet again. Such prudence is especially important in light of Saakashvili’s provocative statements and military actions that led conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan to ask:

What is Saakashvili up to? He seems intent on provoking a new crisis to force NATO to stand with him and bring the United States in on his side – against Russia. Ultimate goal: Return the issue of his lost provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back onto the world’s front burner. While such a crisis may be in the interests of Saakashvili and his Russophobic U.S neoconservative retainers, it is the furthest thing from U.S. national interests.

To avoid a catastrophic failure of nuclear deterrence, the risk analysis approach that I have advocated tells us to pay attention to these early warning signs before their danger is apparent. Where nuclear disaster is concerned, hindsight is of little value.

Martin Hellman

For those wishing to learn more about the Georgian war, articles concerning the independent European Union fact-finding mission on causes of the 2008 war appeared in Der Spiegel and The New York Times. Additional articles on the role played by American aid appeared in The National Interest (the magazine of the Nixon Center) and Russia Today. It is also relevant that, three weeks before the war broke out, the Voice of America reported that, “Georgian and U.S. troops have begun joint military maneuvers on Georgian soil, as tensions between the former Soviet republic and neighboring Russia continue to escalate.” Unfortunately, the URL for that report now produces an error.

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, since 1982, 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, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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2 Responses to The Georgian War Revisited

  1. Nuclear Risk says:


    Thanks for finding the new link at VOA. Greatly appreciated.


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