With the failure of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine is being drawn back into Moscow's orbit. Now, Georgia, another former republic of the old Soviet Union, is finding that ex-colonies of the empire pay a price for becoming estranged from Mother Russia.
In 2003, Georgia underwent a Rose Revolution that swept Eduard Shevardnadze from power. But in the street demonstrations that raised up Mikhail Saakashvili, Moscow saw the fine hand of Bush's "democracy project." Since then, Moscow has seethed, as Saakashvili has pulled his country steadily toward the EU and NATO.
In late September, Saakashvili went a bridge too far, arresting four Russian officials as spies. President Vladimir Putin denounced the arrests as an "act of state terrorism with hostage-taking," calling them "a sign of the political legacy of Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria." Beria, who headed the NKVD secret police under Josef Stalin, had come out of Georgia, as did Stalin.
To ease the crisis, Georgia released and expelled the Russians. But that failed to satisfy Putin, who recalled Russia's ambassador, cut air and rail travel and postal lines, ceased to issue visas to Tiblisi, imposed an embargo, began to expel Georgians from Russia and conducted naval maneuvers in the Black Sea off the coast of Georgia.
Since the 1990s, Moscow has supported secessionists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who wish to break free of Georgia and rejoin Russia. Putin has lately met with the leaders of both regions at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Moscow also maintains Russian peacekeeping troops in both.
This confrontation is between unequals. Georgia, a poor country of 5 million, is dependent on Russia not only for the remittances of its sons and daughters who work in Russia, but for the revenue from its exports of wine and mineral water, and for gas and electricity.
Russians, resentful at perceived Georgian insolence and American meddling in their backyard, support Putin's cracking of the whip. But Putin may have unleashed a strain of nationalism he could find difficult to contain.
Says Nikolai Svanidze, a leading Russian TV personality of Georgian heritage, "This anti-Georgian campaign ... has led to a wave of xenophobia, which is very dangerous in a multiethnic state."
Saakashvili appears wholly dependent upon the restraint of Putin and Moscow. For Georgia's friends in the European Union and Washington seem impotent or unwilling to take his side. The EU is held hostage by its dependence on Russian oil and gas as winter impends. Bush, beset with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and collisions with Iran and North Korea, has shown no desire to take a stand alongside Tiblisi against Moscow.
Many believe Putin's endgame is the overthrow of Saakashvili in a counter-revolution of the kind the Russians believe was engineered in the West to bring him to power. If that is Putin's goal, there seems little more that the United States could do to prevent it than Russia could do to prevent Bill Clinton's ouster of the Haitian junta or Bush 41's ouster of Manuel Noriega.
What this Tiblisi-Moscow confrontation does reveal, however, is, first, the limits of U.S. power; second, the folly of U.S. meddling in Russia's "near abroad"; third, the insanity of any decision to bring Georgia into NATO.
Were Georgia in NATO today, this crisis would have escalated into a confrontation between Washington and Moscow. For under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, an attack against one member is to be treated as an attack against all. Thus, a collision of Russian forces in South Ossetia with Georgian forces could bring America and Russia to the brink of war.
Russian leaders contend that Saakashvili has been building up his military to invade and recapture the breakaway regions, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has implied that Saakashvili ignited the crisis after visits to Washington and NATO headquarters.
No hard evidence has surfaced to substantiate this charge. But if Saakashvili was put up to creating this crisis by anyone in the United States, it was an act of colossal stupidity. What do we do now?
There seems little we can do if Putin is determined to bring down Saakashvili. Russia is flush with oil and gas revenue and $250 billion in cash reserves; Moscow is moving closer to China; and Putin is far more popular in his country than Bush and Blair are in theirs.
Bush bought into the notion that U.S. vital interests required supporting ex-Russian republics against Moscow, which was absurd. Our vital interest was always in maintaining strong U.S.-Russian ties, which have been ravaged by the meddling of neoconservatives mired in Russophobia.
As for who rules Ukraine or Georgia, for two centuries that was never a vital interest of ours. Thus there is no reason to extend NATO war guarantees to Ukraine, the Caucasus or Central Asia.
The destiny of that region will be determined by the dominant powers that reside there: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran. Not by us.