Nobody comes away from this Georgia-Russia conflict over South Ossetia looking good. The Georgia government badly bungled efforts to hold the Ossete people within the Georgian state sparking an armed confrontation with Russia that now jeopardizes not only the status of South Ossetia but also Abkhazia. The heavy hand of Russia’s military response against this tiny little country only reminds Russia’s neighbors of the old days of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union when countries on its borders were bullied into direct or indirect control by Moscow. (Russia’s siding with an ethnic indepence movements in Geogia is not without irony given Russia’s brutal suppression of an indepence movement in nearby Chechnya.)
And the failure of intelligence has yet again blindsided the United States to see this coming in order to try to prevent this war. In fact, based upon previous statements of encouragement from the White House, Georgians seem surprised the U.S. is rushing to Georgia’s aid. But the poor intelligence and empty rhetoric reflect a failure (or lack of) thoughtful policy for the region and, in particular, Russia. What policy exists seems ad hoc. Given the importance Russia (and the Soviet Union) played in U.S. foreign policy for the better part of the 20th Century, this is truly amazing. The collapse of the Soviet Union offered up a rare opportunity to redefine the relationships between nations. Instead, it looks like we may be entering a second Cold War.
Max Bergmann has these thoughts on the subject at Democracy Arsenal:
There is a lot of talk about what a mistake it was to support/offer NATO membership to Georgia. How this was naturally going to antagonize Russia and now how the idea of NATO enlargement is such a bad idea because it would naturally antagonize Russia. This to me represents a badly mistaken reading of the situation and grossly dismisses the amazing success NATO enlargement has been.
The fact is that NATO expansion was one of the most successful post-Cold War policies, as it helped anchor fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe to the west and enabled and facilitated EU expansion. Did Russia consistently view NATO expansion with trepidation and hostility? Yes. But measures were taken by the Clinton administration to assuage Russian fears. Namely, efforts were made to include Russia to a significant degree in NATO. But the important point was that NATO expansion was rooted in broader U.S. - Russia dialogue.
The problem with Bush's policy toward Georgia was not support for NATO expansion or its support for a democracy on Russia's borders. The problem was that we pursued this policy in a vacuum.
For the last 8 years the Bush administration has had no Russia policy and had no corresponding approach to address Russian concerns about democratic governance along its borders. Instead, the Bush administration only cared about two things 1. Maintaining the warm relationship between Bush and Putin at apparently any cost and 2. Expanding missile defense. Our support for the colored revolutions and NATO expansion was completely divorced from any coherent policy toward Russia.
In the meantime Russia has grown stronger over the last decade fueled by its vast energy resources and became more hostile toward democracy both within Russia, as well as along its borders. Instead, of engaging or confronting Russian hostility toward democracy and its neighbors (ie. its eviction of democratic civil society groups, its conducting of cyber attacks against Baltic EU members, its connections to poisonings, its manipulation of oil and gas pipelines against its neighbors, etc. etc.) the U.S. turned a blind eye, and Europe followed. Instead, the "big" issue of discussion between the U.S. and Russia was over a strategically useless missile defense system. We went to the mat on that but failed to mention all of the other issues.
There is a ton of blame on all sides of this conflict. But the strategically stupid thing on our part was not our support of Georgian democracy, but doing so in a vacuum.