The ongoing crisis in Georgia has catapulted relations with Russia to a top place on the foreign-policy agenda. It has presented the United States—and the West more generally—with important policy decisions, and it has brought to a head a debate that has been taking place for many years about how to deal with Russia. One side in that debate believes that post-Communist Russia has taken the wrong path of development and should therefore be isolated and punished; the other advocates a continuing search for cooperation with Russia on a range of important issues such as nuclear disarmament, global warming, energy, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The crisis in Georgia has clearly strengthened those who want to isolate Russia; it is not so clear, however, that that would be a wise policy.

It now seems unlikely that anyone will benefit from the war in Georgia. Georgia has been humiliated and its prospects for economic and political development have been seriously set back. Russia has acted brutally as a great power bullying a small neighbor, and its relations with other states will suffer as a result (the speedy signing of the U.S.-Polish agreement on missile defense is an indication of that). The strong rhetoric coming from Washington cannot hide the U.S. failure to prevent Russia’s intervention in Georgia and its inability to come directly to the aid of a state that looks to it for support.

The Georgian crisis requires a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Russia. To put that in context, consider the enormous upheaval Russia has gone through in the past twenty years. The Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991, creating fifteen new states where previously there had been one. This geopolitical transformation, which took place with far less loss of life than many feared, was for Russians a severe blow to their sense of national pride, and it left some simmering disputes, especially in the Caucasus, not only in Georgia but also within Russia (Chechnya), as well as in neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan.

At home, too, Russia has been transformed. The 1990s were a period of political freedom in Russia, but they also brought economic collapse and social turmoil, with widespread deprivation and great anxiety about the future. When the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, he adopted the goal of restoring the power of the Russian state. He tamed the oligarchs and increased state control over the economy. He also curbed the mass media and repressed political opposition. Russia today is far from being the democracy that many people hoped for ten or fifteen years ago, but it is also far from being a reincarnation of the Soviet Union. It now has a capitalist economy, and there is much greater freedom than in Soviet times.

Putin has been a popular leader, thanks in large measure to the economic turnaround that has taken place since he became president. The economy has grown steadily, at rates of 6–7 percent a year, and much of the population has benefited—even if the benefits have been very unequally distributed. The rising price of oil helps to account for this growth, but economic reforms put in place by Yeltsin and Putin have played their role too. Economic growth has allowed Russia to reassert its regional interests and its status as a great power.

Many Americans have been greatly disappointed by Russia’s development over the past twenty years: Why, they ask, has Russia not become a democratic state? And why has it become so antagonistic to the United States—opposing the deployment of missile defenses in Europe, for example, and now sending its troops into Georgia?

Russians, too, are disillusioned by recent history, but for different reasons. Many Russians are willing to give Putin some credit not only for raising living standards but also for introducing a degree of stability into political life. According to the same polls, however, they are also profoundly unhappy about the level of corruption, the arbitrary behavior of law-enforcement agencies, and the failure of the government to provide services in an efficient and effective manner.

Russians’ disillusionment springs also from a sense that they have not been treated fairly by the rest of the world. The current Russian leadership feels, rightly or wrongly, that Russia’s interests have been ignored by the United States for the past fifteen years, and that feeling appears to be widely shared by the Russian public. There is a standard litany of complaints about the way in which the West is said to have taken advantage of Russia’s weakness: NATO enlargement; NATO intervention in Kosovo and the recognition of Kosovo’s independence; U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty; support for the “color” revolutions in Georgia (Rose) and Ukraine (Orange). Russian leaders see this as geopolitical encirclement by countries that speak of partnership but ignore Russia’s interests.

Early last year Putin launched a harsh attack on American policy for failing to take Russia’s interests into account. His goal was to recalibrate the U.S.-Russian relationship in a way that would give Russia a greater voice in international politics. Russia’s improved economic performance, as well as U.S. difficulties in Iraq, made it seem an opportune time for Russia to return to what it regards as its proper place in the world.

This is the context in which Russia has acted in Georgia. It has made it perfectly clear for some time that it did not want to see Georgia join NATO. After the recognition of Kosovo’s independence early this year, Russia stepped up its control over the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili’s reckless decision to use military force to try to seize Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, gave Russia the pretext to introduce more troops into Georgia (in addition to those it already had in South Ossetia and Abkhazia).

If Russia had not responded with military force, its claims to a more assertive role in international politics would have lost credibility. But Russia has not only expelled Georgian troops from South Ossetia; it has also sent its forces into the rest of Georgia to destroy Georgia’s war-making potential. This has led to widespreaed uncertainty about Russia’s ultimate goals in Georgia, and indeed in the former Soviet Union more generally.

For all its recent assertiveness, Russia is weak internally and restricted in its options abroad. Its domestic problems are severe: its economy is too dependent on the energy sector; the inadequate health system needs to be rebuilt; failing infrastructure requires heavy investment; the population is declining rapidly as a result of the low birth rate and low life expectancy. The list of domestic problems is long and impressive, and the political class knows that Russia needs to deal with them if it is to secure its status as a great power. Russia today is not the Soviet Union, either ideologically or in terms of military strength, but it does retain the capacity to create difficulties by mobilizing Russian minorities living outside Russia or by manipulating oil and gas supplies to U.S. allies.

In dealing with the aftermath of the Georgian crisis, the United States should pursue three goals. The first is to help Georgia recover economically and politically from the war and also to play whatever role it can in creating conditions that will allow Georgia to become a stable and prosperous democracy. That will inevitably involve working through international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union to try to resolve the complex conflicts that exist in the Caucasus. It will also involve engaging with Russia, which has interests of its own as well as a powerful position in the region.

The second is to provide reassurance to other former Soviet republics and satellites (the Baltic states and Poland, for example) that their position as independent states is secure. That is most easily done for those states that are already members of the European Union and of NATO. The most delicate case is that of Ukraine. A secure and prosperous Ukraine is extremely important for the West (as well as for Ukrainians of course), but Russia may have some leverage there through the large Russian-speaking population in the eastern part of the country. The West should focus on the economic and political integration of Ukraine into Europe rather than on its admission to NATO.

The third is to seek cooperation with Russia in such areas as the reduction of nuclear weapons, curbing the rise of Iranian power and influence, defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and tackling the issues of energy supply and global warming. These three goals may appear to be in tension, but they are to some degree complementary. A deep antagonism between the United States and Russia is not likely to further American interests; nor is it likely to help either Georgia or Ukraine.


This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.



David Holloway is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University.

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Published in the 2008-09-12 issue: View Contents
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