David and Goliath in the Caucasus

A former State Department official describes what led to the war between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008. Saakashvili, concludes Ronald Asmus, acted rashly, but ultimately preserved his country's independence.

A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West,by Ronald D. Asmus

 Palgrave Macmillan, 254 pages, $27

I met Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for the first time in 2001, when he was serving as justice minister in Eduard Shevardnadze's government. I was taking part in an international seminar on democracy at a resort north of Tbilisi, and Saakashvili arrived on the last day of the event. Most of the participants were Georgian politicians -not an especially impressive mix of former Soviet bureaucrats and party hacks, who reminded me, and not in a good way, of what we in Israel know as "local precinct activists." Most didn't know English or anything about the Western world, and basic democratic values and processes seemed beyond them.

When Saakashvili appeared, he stood out because he was different: young, energetic, charismatic, frenetic, tough and borderline aggressive. His law degree from Columbia University, his fluent English, the way he spoke and the breadth of his education immediately placed him in a different league from the other participants. After a lunchtime chat, he asked me to accompany him on the ride back to Tbilisi.

Instead of a Mercedes limo - the status symbol of the elite in the post Communist world - Saakashvili took me to a jeep, got behind the steering wheel and began zooming wildly down the poorly maintained roads, past the breathtaking mountains and valleys of Georgia. Bodyguards following in an official vehicle could barely keep up with us. He must have seen the expression on my face and realized that his driving was scaring me a little, because he said, "Don't worry, I'm a good driver." That didn't do much to calm my nerves, but at least I got a chance to talk to him on the way, and that conversation, which we continued at his office, showed Saakashvili to be quite the unusual figure.

"You've seen our politicians," he said. "They'll never pull us out of the muck. We need young people who were educated in the West, not Communists who abandoned their Marxist ideology but not their Soviet thought process, or clan leaders and other guys who are just interested in enriching themselves and their cousins."

When he began criticizing Shevardnadze and the corruption and helplessness around him, I asked him delicately what he was doing in this government. "I'm leaving soon -what will happen afterwards, I don't know." When he brought me to my hotel, Saakashvili said he saw Israel as an example of a small country with great people: "[David] Ben Gurion is my hero, and that's not flattery. I really think that."

When we parted, I knew we would all be hearing more about this man, and that he was destined for greatness, but also for trouble. Indeed, he slammed the door on the government a few months later. In 2003 he led the Rose Revolution, a bloodless coup that removed Shevardnadze from office, and he was elected president of Georgia by a landslide. His term was characterized by astounding energy. He got rid of an entire layer of functionaries and wheeler dealers from the older generation and replaced them with young Western educated men and women. He also instituted far reaching reforms in the government, including the dismissal of all police officers and establishment of a new police force trained by American experts. Under his leadership, the country's gross national product increased an average of 8.5 percent a year, and tax revenues multiplied fourfold. Tbilisi went from being a neglected Soviet provincial town to a bustling modern metropolis.

Since Saakashvili was on the move, things weren't always done by the book, and there was a feeling that the impressive ends overshadowed the means, which were sometimes problematic, if not authoritarian. The policy of moving closer to the West and the desire to join NATO and the European Union were widely supported in Georgia, but brought down on him the enmity of Vladimir Putin's Moscow. All this blew up in the summer of 2008, when, after extended Russian provocations, Saakashvili (known as Misha to everyone, friends as well as enemies ) led his country into a hopeless war with Russia.

From Stalin to Shevardnadze

In certain ways, Saakashvili represents his country and his people. No nation is as fine, amiable, hospitable and cultured as the Georgians, who love art and appreciate beauty and aesthetics - but sometimes lose all restraint and become quite wild. The Georgians are proud of having adopted Christianity as early as 337 C.E., hundreds of years before the Russians, who didn't become Christians until the 10th century. They see themselves as a cultured European people, and the Russians as half Asian barbarians. At the same time, some of the Soviet Union's cruelest leaders - like Josef Stalin and Lavrenty Beria - were Georgians. But then, one of the leading figures in the Gorbachev perestroika era was also Georgian: Shevardnadze, who was foreign minister at the time (and was named Eduard after German Social Democratic leader Eduard Bernstein ).

Over the last few years, several colorful figures have made history in Georgia, people whose lives were a study in contrasts, to an extent not seen in the West since Renaissance era Florence. Take a coin and document forger who was also one of the country's most prominent artists and tried his hand at politics, or a well known linguist who became a nationalistic, tyrannical politician until his ouster.

Some of these contradictions can also be seen in Saakashvili's personality, and Ronald D. Asmus does not ignore them in "A Little War That Shook the World," even though his sympathies lie with Georgia. But what Asmus, a senior U.S. State Department official during the Clinton administration, succeeds in demonstrating is that it would be a mistake to see the brief war between Georgia and Russia as stemming solely from Saakashvili's political moves. Nonetheless, there is no ignoring the fact that Saakashvili's decision to respond with force to ongoing Russian provocations played into the hands of a Russian policy informed by Putin's personal antipathy toward the Georgian president. (In a conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Putin reportedly said he was going to "hang Saakashvili by the balls." )

The backdrop to the conflict has to do with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with Georgia's strategic location at the geopolitical intersection between Europe and Asia. Gas and oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea go through Georgia before reaching Western Europe. But the roots of the dispute with Russia go back even further than that: To the Georgian mindset, Russia is the historic oppressor.

King David, Queen Tamar

The Georgian state - sometimes united, other times divided into principalities - retained its independence and its identity for hundreds of years, in the face of two extremely powerful empires: the Ottoman and the Persian. Georgia kept its unique language, its independent Georgian Orthodox church, and its long collective memory of kings and queens (including a King David and Queen Tamar ). But toward the end of the 18th century, the rulers of Georgia were compelled to ask Christian Russia for protection from the Muslim rulers of the Persian and Ottoman empires.

In 1801, Czar Alexander I turned protection into annexation. The Georgian rulers were deposed, the Georgian Orthodox church was abolished and its believers forcibly integrated into the Russian Orthodox church, and Georgia ceased to exist as an independent entity. Some Georgian nobles were able to retain their aristocratic status, by being absorbed into the Russian nobility (Prince Pyotr Bagration, for example, became one of the top Russian military leaders fighting Napoleon ). But overall, the annexation led to extensive cultural and linguistic Russification.

This situation meant that Georgians ended up playing a prominent role in Russian socialist revolutionary parties (which included many minorities, including, of course, Jews ). With the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution - which in its initial phase, under Lenin's influence, recognized non Russian nations' right of secession - the Georgians declared their independence in 1917. The Social Democrats (Mensheviks ) took control of the newly independent state, which was headed by Noe Zhordania, an impressive intellectual who wrote an important theoretical work in which he attempted (like the Austro Marxists and Dov Ber Borochov ) to combine socialism with nationalism.

After a few years of independence, Georgia was dragged into the overall Russian Civil War. The Red Army conquered Tbilisi in 1921, and Georgia was annexed to the Soviet Union. Thanks in no small part to Stalin's position, the Soviet republic of Georgia was granted a relatively high degree of autonomy from Moscow. But that couldn't conceal the fact that Georgia had lost its independence for the second time in slightly more than a century, even if this time around the conqueror was Soviet, rather than czarist Moscow.

Dormant no longer

Given this context, it's clear why in Georgia, as in Lithuania and Estonia, perestroika was combined with a nationalist movement that seeks first autonomy and then national independence, which was achieved when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. But at that same time, the seeds for the 2008 war were being planted. Soviet Georgia had included the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Newly independent Georgia wanted to extend its sovereignty to those regions, but the residents appealed to Moscow. In a series of skirmishes and miniature wars, which received minimal attention in the West, Georgia was unsuccessful in bringing them under its sovereignty.

In Abkhazia, the Russian army marched into the rebel region and supported the ethnic cleansing of local Georgians, some 250,000 of whom either fled or were expelled, swarming into Georgia proper. Through a complicated process, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held these wars in check, though it was the Russian army that was charged with maintaining the cease fire and separating the Georgians from the rebel forces. Since the Russian army had helped the rebel regions, the arrangement created an absurd situation, in which a country that was party to a conflict was authorized by the international community to monitor that very conflict.

The Europeans and Americans, who in the '90s were preoccupied with the conflicts taking place in the former Yugoslavia and in Iraq, were not particularly interested in creating a more reliable monitoring system in the Caucasus, or available to do so. The result has been that since the 1990s, the rebel regions have been under de facto Russian control, and Georgia has lost about a quarter of its territory. This hostile intervention reminded the Georgians of the traumas of 1801 and 1921: The Russian Goliath was once again trying to take over the Georgian David.

That situation constituted the "dormant conflicts" Saakashvili inherited when he became president in 2003. His predecessor, Shevardnadze, had tried and failed to reach an agreed upon solution, and the hostility toward Shevardnadze from Putin's Moscow (not just because of his position as president of an independent Georgia, but also because of the role he played in the dissolution of the Soviet Union ) led to several assassination attempts.

When Saakashvili took over, he had two goals: bringing Georgia closer to the West, which entailed far reaching administrative and economic reforms, and returning the "occupied territories" to Georgian rule, though he was willing to give them extensive autonomy. The West supported this latter policy (which was referred to in diplomatic jargon as retaining the territorial integrity of Georgia ), but didn't make any significant effort to move it forward. Several summit meetings between Saakashvili and Putin came to nothing, because Russia was interested in maintaining the status quo. The meetings also intensified the hostility between the two leaders; while Saakashvili saw the talks as taking place between the leaders of two sovereign countries, Putin had not fully moved past the history of Russia's patronage. Like the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Georgia's non violent Rose Revolution made Russia wary of other incidents that could destabilize Putin's neo authoritarian regime. And then the West made two mistakes, according to Asmus, who is today responsible for strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a public policy institution that promotes greater cooperation between North America and Europe. Those errors were the recognition of Kosovo's independence, and the decisions reached at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, where Washington failed to overcome German and French opposition to its push for Ukraine and Georgia to become NATO candidates, while at the same time these two former Soviet satellites were promised an eventual place in the alliance.

Asmus' position is complex and interesting: He argues that none of the Western decisions actually caused the strained relations between Georgia and Russia, but that both the recognition of an independent Kosovo and the NATO decisions gave Russia an excuse for the acts that led to its war with Georgia.

Falling into Russia's trap

Asmus describes in detail the fundamental differences between the situation in Kosovo and that in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But he says that's not really important, that the decisive factor was that in deciding to recognize Kosovo's independence - rightfully so, from the author's perspective - the West did not take into account the ramifications that decision would have on Russian policy. Russia had previously stated that if Kosovo won independence, so should Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the West didn't take this seriously.

When Russia began taking steps aimed at strengthening its hold on those regions - granting Russian citizenship to its residents, sending heavy weapons to local militias and reinforcements for the Russian "peacekeeping forces," and ultimately announcing that the Russian foreign ministry would be the point of contact with those regions because the Russian parliament had recognized their independence - the West was completely taken aback, and the Western leaders' responses indicated a sense of powerlessness.

The same could be said for the NATO summit in Bucharest, which demonstrated Washington's loss of hegemony in the wake of the Bush administration's failure. According to Asmus, the decisions that came out of the Bucharest summit were the worst that could be imagined. On the one hand, Georgia and Ukraine would not be covered by NATO's defense umbrella. On the other hand, the declaration that they would eventually find a home in NATO, a statement made in an effort to calm Ukrainian and Georgian fears of Russian neo imperialism, only served to make Russia anxious and angry. Since Russia realized that the internal NATO dispute would prevent the West from taking effective action in relation to Georgia, Moscow began a process that put Georgia in an impossible situation: It had to either accept the creeping Russian annexation of the rebel regions, clear signs that Georgia's own independence and sovereignty were in doubt, or try to stop that annexation by force - a move that had zero chance of success in the face of Russia's far greater might.

Asmus describes in great detail the steps Georgia took ahead of the war, and his sympathy for Saakashvili's plight is evident. Nonetheless, he doesn't spare the criticism, assailing Saakashvili for some of the steps he took and, especially, for his fiery rhetoric (it doesn't help if you call the Russian leader "LilliPutin," especially if you yourself are more than six feet tall ). But Asmus thinks that if Saakashvili had not responded to Russia's actions, his government would have been toppled and there may well have been a coup d'etat in Tbilisi, which could have resulted in a particular well known pro Russian politician taking Georgia's helm. In effect, Georgia could have lost its independence and become a Russian satellite once again.

It's clear that Saakashvili fell into Russia's trap. The Georgian army - which had purchased some of its arms from Israel and had undergone training by former Israeli officers - was defeated. Georgia lost its remaining grasp on the separatist regions, and the ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia were evacuated, its residents turned into refugees. Russia officially recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia and signed defense treaties with them that essentially annexed them to Russia; and the chances of Georgia joining NATO or the European Union are now about nil. All the same, for all his failures, Saakashvili managed by the skin of his teeth to remain president and retain Georgia's independence, even if the country he is leading is now smaller and weaker.

But the strategic significance of the Russia Georgia war transcends the narrow bounds of the Caucasus. The war proved that the West is powerless in the face of an increasingly strong and assertive Russia. The United States had expressed support for Georgia but took no action, and NATO did the same. The European Union is split. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt did release an impressive statement comparing Russia's arguments about Georgia to those of Hitler regarding the Sudetenland, but the EU didn't come up with a policy of its own, and it was only the president of France (which at the time held the presidency of the EU ) who rushed off to Moscow and achieved a cease fire that in effect rubber stamped what Russia had already done. In short, Asmus says, the five day war between Russia and Georgia was a decisive milestone marking the end of American strategic hegemony and Russia's return to the international stage as a leading player. That's the reason the title of the book refers to the war that "shook the world," which may be a bit over the top but is essentially correct.

There is something of a moral here for small countries: Major powers won't intervene on such countries' behalf unless it benefits their immediate interests. All the same, the rightness of Saakashvili's decision to challenge Russia - for all his hastiness and for all Georgia's weakness - shows that sometimes, being unwilling to give in is strategically the right move, even if it exacts a high price. We may, perhaps, ask what course history would have taken had Czechoslovakia's president Eduard Benes refused to accept the dictates of the Munich Pact in 1938 and decided to resist militarily the Nazi invasion. There is no answer, but the troubling question remains.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the editor of the recent volume "War and Peace" (Zalman Shazar Center Books, in Hebrew ).