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MEMBER DIARY

And some days the bear eats you

Russia, Georgia and the United States

From the diaries by Erick.

The Russian bear is awake from its hibernation. Russia’s response to the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia was typically Russian – “disproportionate” – in the words of the Bush administration.

The conflict, killing thousands and dsplacing tens of thousands in just a weekend’s short time, has serious implications for the United States, its newer friends among the former Soviet republics and older friends around the world:

Sure the Georgians got themselves into this conflict by launching a bid to recapture South Ossetia. But it wasn’t unprovoked — the Russians have been building up the government and armed forces of the breakaway province for years, and have been applying every kind of pressure to stop Georgia joining NATO, including aggressive measures like shooting down a Georgian aircraft earlier this year. And the Russians are in no position to criticize Georgia’s efforts to recapture breakaway territory given the tens of thousands the Russians killed to reverse Chechnya’s attempts to break free.

As Russian bombs rain down on key Georgian military bases, Ukraine and the Baltic states know all too well that they are next on the list for Russian invasion — probably with the same pretext of protecting Russian citizens — if the Kremlin gets away with crushing Georgia.

Also watching what happens in the Caucasus with one eye on the U.S. will be allied countries like Taiwan (it knows that U.S. corporations have long been pushing successive U.S. administrations to abandon Taiwanese democracy), Pakistan (it’s been dumped before), India, Turkey, the Gulf states, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Australia, and Colombia… the list goes on.

The Russians are as aware of this as anyone else. Which begs the question:

Will the United States put real pressure on Russia to stop? In a news analysis on Sunday, the New York Times reporter Helene Cooper accurately captured what I gather is the prevailing view in our State Department: “While America considers Georgia its strongest ally in the bloc of former Soviet countries, Washington needs Russia too much on big issues like Iran to risk it all to defend Georgia.”

But Georgia, a nation of about 4.6 million, has had the third-largest military presence — about 2,000 troops — fighting along with U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraq. For this reason alone, we owe Georgia a serious effort to defend its sovereignty. Surely we cannot simply stand by as an autocratic aggressor gobbles up part of — and perhaps destabilizes all of — a friendly democratic nation that we were sponsoring for NATO membership a few months ago.

For that matter, consider the implications of our turning away from Georgia for other aspiring pro-Western governments in the neighborhood, like Ukraine’s. Shouldn’t we therefore now insist that normal relations with Russia are impossible as long as the aggression continues, strongly reiterate our commitment to the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine, and offer emergency military aid to Georgia?

In a throwback to the cold war, the Pravda headline insisted, “War between Russia and Georgia orchestrated from USA”:

Russian officials believe that it was the USA that orchestrated the current conflict. The chairman of the State Duma Committee for Security, Vladimir Vasilyev, believes that the current conflict is South Ossetia is very reminiscent to the wars in Iraq and Kosovo.

“The things that were happening in Kosovo, the things that were happening in Iraq – we are now following the same path. The further the situation unfolds, the more the world will understand that Georgia would never be able to do all this without America. South Ossetian defense officials used to make statements about imminent aggression from Georgia, but the latter denied everything, whereas the US Department of State released no comments on the matter. In essence, they have prepared the force, which destroys everything in South Ossetia, attacks civilians and hospitals. They are responsible for this. The world community will learn about it,” the official said.

Along with using Pravda to blame the U.S. for the conflict, the Russians are threatening Georgia’s allies among the former Soviet states:

Russia’s ambassador to Latvia Monday warned the Baltic states and Poland that they would pay for their criticism of the Kremlin over the conflict in Georgia, the Baltic news agency BNS reported.

“One must not hurry on such serious issues, as serious mistakes can be made that have to be paid for a long time afterwards,” Alexander Veshnyakov was quoted as saying by BNS.

Contacted by AFP, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Riga confirmed the ambassador’s comments but declined to elaborate.

Despite the fact that Georgia called for a ceasefire and started pulling its troops out of South Ossetia, Russia continues to take the war deep inside Georgia, even bombing the capitol city of Tbilisi. Is the severity of the Russian response payback for Kosovo?

One of the triggers for the conflict exploding now, however, occurred outside the Caucuses when western countries recognized Kosovo, formerly part of Serbia. This diplomatic manoeuvre upset the Kremlin, which has refused to recognize the new entity. It has also not forgotten that a weak Russia had to watch helplessly in 1999 as an American-led NATO bombed its historical Balkan ally into submission.

Now in retaliation, Russia sees the opportunity to inflict the same fate on America’s Caucasian ally. It reasons that if Serbia is divisible, then so is Georgia. Like the Albanians in Kosovo, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians should have the right to secede if they do not want to remain part of Georgia. And they don’t. As proof, many people in these two rebellious areas, as many as 90 per cent according to one report, have taken Russian citizenship.

Georgia’s desire for NATO membership was also a factor in this weekend’s Russian response. Putin has spoken very strongly against Georgian entry into the western alliance, seeing it as a threatening attempt to encircle Russia as well as an western intrusion into its traditional sphere of influence. This is also how the Kremlin regards the American military bases in Central Asia and NATO’s eastern expansion to its borders.

By attacking Georgia, Russia may have crushed its neighbor’s NATO hopes. The ruthless Russian invasion showed Europe’s more reluctant members they may eventually wind up in a bloody Caucasian war if they accept Georgia into their organization.

In reality, Russia wants the United States out of the Caucuses completely and probably regards its Georgia invasion as the first step toward this goal. America has built a pipeline from oil and gas-rich Kazakhstan through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey that breaks Russia’s stranglehold on supplying energy to Europe, lessening Europe’s dependence on Moscow. And it plans to build another.

So what is the United States to do? We don’t have the energy security, the miliary assets nor the political will to send troops, armor or airstrikes into the region to come to the aid of the Georgians. So focused have we been on the threat of militiant Islam, we have allowed the once familiar potential threats of Russia and China to fall off of our national radar, something I recall Fred Thompson warning about in his stump speeches while still a candidate for the GOP presidential nominaton.

Thompson, in his speech at the Citadel last November, argued that:

We have major shortcomings in U.S. defense capabilities. To confront these shortcomings, we must address several key priorities:

First, we must spend more on defense, and we must do so carefully and wisely. Spending today as a percent of GDP is estimated at 4.1 percent – and that includes funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, defense spending is expected to decline down to 3.1 percent in 2011. I believe we must be prepared to increase defense spending to at least 4.5 percent of GDP, not including what it takes to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it comes to matters of budgets with Congress they say all numbers are fungible. But in this area of appropriation, there should be little room for negotiation.

Second, we must admit to ourselves, as Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, that our military is simply too small. Too many commitments today leave our Armed Forces capable of meeting too few contingencies tomorrow. I propose today that we build a “Million-Member” ground force. We should increase Army end strength to 775,000 organized into 64 brigade combat teams and increase active duty Marine Corps forces by 50,000 to 225,000. Half-measures and small increases will no longer do. We need the best all-volunteer force that can meet the security needs of this country, and they must be organized, trained and equipped to deal with tomorrow’s threats as well as today’s.

Third, we must modernize our Armed Forces. The average age of our military aircraft is 24 years; some are over forty years old…twice the age of most of you. The Army’s main battle tank and fighting vehicles were designed in the 1970s and 80s. And the entire fleet of vehicles is not aging gracefully either, with an average age of 13 years, made worse by years of tough use.

We must fully field and fund the next generation of military systems to ensure U.S. forces retain dominance in the full battle space: On the battlefield, in the skies above it, and in the waters surrounding it. The investments we make today provide the means to defend our nation tomorrow. They will make our military personnel more effective and safer. We need sustained technology development, and we need the best and brightest working on our defense programs.

Finally, and most importantly, we must take better care of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. They are the life-blood of our defense establishment. Whether they are active duty, Guard or Reserve, they are entitled, as well, to expect the best pay and benefits our country can afford, including a modern GI Bill with educational assistance that will help us recruit and keep our nation’s finest in uniform. They also deserve the best healthcare and the best support possible for their families.

And for those who have already served, we need to fix the VA system and implement many of the recommendations of the Dole-Shalala Commission and the Veteran’s Disability Benefits Commission report.

These four pillars of a revitalized national defense are part of a much more detailed plan that must include, among other initiatives, enhancing the capabilities of our Special Operations Forces to hunt down terrorists; rebuilding the Navy to show American resolve, full time, in trouble spots; strengthening our intelligence gathering and analysis; procuring modern long-range cargo aircraft to project power anytime, anywhere; building a robust missile defense system to defend our homeland, our troops and our allies from ballistic missiles; and ensuring the means to protect our space-based assets and cyber systems

Some will say that this plan is “too much,” or “too big.” Others will say that building a large military will encourage our involvement in more conflicts. But these views are out step with reality, out of touch with our nation’s needs, and overlook our nation’s history.

The fact is, we can and must do this. The world, our foes and friends alike, will not allow us to do otherwise. We can either build up and deter war, or we can allow our forces to wither and risk conflict.

Even with the strong military that Thompson advocated, the U.S. would still likely not want to get involved in a ground war right in the Russians’ back yard. But it would give us the bite to back up our diplomatic bark when we speak about the situation. We would at least possess the military assets we need in the event of any hostile action which may be taken against us or our allies. As for political will, that’s another matter:

The Bush administration is said to be obsessed with loyalty. But at the same time, it is habitually disloyal to America’s friends and allies. None of the over 30 countries that have sent troops to take part in the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq have been economically or politically rewarded in any way. Indeed the administration has taken them so much for granted than it hasn’t barely acknowledged their contribution, still less thanked them. This has damaged the administration because it plays into the myth of “unilateralism.” But much worse than that, it has also damaged American interests. Our allies have realized that America is neither grateful nor reliable. If the Poles had got anything for their stalwart support in Iraq — even something as cheap and easy as more visas to the U.S., the Kaczinsky government might not have fallen and the Poles might not be taking their troops out. If Tony Blair could have pointed at a single major defense contract from the United States — say a small aircraft carrier to be built in one of Britain’s desperate shipyards — he could have replied convincingly to charges of being “America’s poodle.”

But Georgia is a bigger test.

We don’t have to go to war for her (fortunately for irresolute Western governments, Georgia’s not in NATO) but we must back her in every other way: diplomatically, economically and with military technology and advice, now and after any ceasefire that is called.

If we don’t, if we let our ally be defeated and humiliated by the Russians, everyone will know that friendship with America carries more risk than rewards. Moreover it will genuinely signal a new age of American isolation. The diminution and weakness described or predicted by so many “declinist” authors will become a reality.

The whole world is watching. Friend and foe alike.

- JP

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