Georgia in the Crosshairs
Published on: October 28, 2010
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  • joe

    Professor Mead, aren’t you being a little hard on the Georgians? Their rashness is simply a recognition that finally an opportunity exists to exist as sovereign nation within an existing and protective international order. In addition, for the first time since ‘the great Schism’ and an Emperor sat in Constantinople there exists a chance to be re-integrated within Western European culture. Of course, they’re being uppity, inconsistent and paranoid. When will the stars be the same?

    The War of Russian Aggression has nothing in common with the ’56 uprising. VOA did not lure the Georgians with false promises into returning Russian fire in Ossetia. The Georgian leadership reached a point where they felt Russian belligerence and encroachment was an existential threat to the health of the state and acted, with full knowledge of their potential success and how it would be portrayed by the foreign press. Rightly or wrongly, the Georgians felt this was an Existenzschlacht and fought.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      But it wasn’t an existential conflict, and the Georgians, sadly, are substantially worse off after their humiliation and defeat. This kind of strategic miscalculation is exactly what a small state trying to establish itself cannot afford.

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  • Gee, perfessor, a great piece of propaganda (except you failed to mention that “democratic” Saakashvili is figuring out a way to stay in power forever (

    BTW talked to any Ossetians or Abkhazians, speaking of “Members of Georgia’s ethnic minorities want to know why we aren’t doing more to protect their cultural rights.” and asked them why they do not want to be in any Georgia that they have seen since Jughashvili and Beria put them into it? But that might complicate your simple “Russian occupation” story.

    And, BTW, Stalin is being re-branded and the statue was removed in June (, so you probably can’t go to the Museum any more.

  • J-P

    Interesting, regarding the new North Caucuses visa-free travel policy of Georgia’s, that your mind goes directly to militants and arms – the two least likely imports to travel such a legitimized route. It sounds to me like you’ve been reading too much Russian press, because it’s only The Kremlin that has ever alleged that Georgia is host to Islamic militants, and that this move is intended to help aid them in their travels. If you find yourself concurring with official Kremlin spin, chances are you’re suffering under an information deficit.

    Thousands of local villagers and regional tradespeople will take advantage of this new policy to engage in very local cross-border trade and inter-city small business. Not inflammable news, to be sure – but that’s all there is to it. More Dagestani silver in Tbilisi, not more Chinese AKs in Grozny.

  • Mr. X

    With all due respect to ‘Joe’, if the Georgians thought the ‘War of Russian Aggression’ was an existential threat, they wouldn’t have tossed down their weapons and left the road to Tblisi wide open for any Russian unit that wanted to take it. The fact that they didn’t take a stand shows they really did not expect Russia to eliminate their sovereignty and in fact knew that it wouldn’t, after South Ossetia and Abkhazia were secured.

  • Sorry J-P “only The Kremlin that has ever alleged that Georgia is host to Islamic militants”, but you’re wrong.

    The Georgians finally admitted it in January 2003.

    This from a Georgian source in 2003.
    “The Ministry of State Security disclosed classified materials of Pankisi gorge, including video tapes, which prove presence of Chechen and Arab militants and their training camps, various terrorist objects and persons, linked with Al-Qaeda in Pankisi.”
    “Laliashvili stated that the Arab emissaries were very well organized. Along with the fighters, there also were Arab religious emissaries (“Spiritual Fathers of Wahabism”) in the Pankisi gorge, who were responsible for functioning of the wahabist schools in Pankisi.
    There were several such schools in the gorge, where children were taught wahhabi ideology. “There are children in Pankisi, who speak Arab better than Georgian,” Laliashvili told Civil Georgia.”

    And here’s the source so you can read for yourself.

  • joe

    Professor Mead:
    I am not sure I agree completely with your assertion that the Georgians are worse off now than before the war. Operationally, the Georgians surely are in a more vulnerable military position, but strategically all the endless nattering by the Georgian government about Russian aggression has been proven true.

    Russia, according to the Georgians, were attempting to de facto annex Ossetia and Abkahzia and militarize their boundaries for future military action against Georgia. The war proved this.

    Georgia maintained that Russia was attempting to colonize both areas through the settling of Russian citizens and indiscriminate granting of citizenship to indigenous Ossetians and Abkahzians. This has happened as well.

    Georgia always insisted that the Russian bear was still a bear interested in colonizing the near-abroad, discounting bilateral or international agreements prohibiting such behavior. To my knowledge, Russia has still not abided to the terms of the Sarkozy cease-fire.

    The war didn’t change much on the ground. True, Russian troops are occupying positions within striking distance of Tiblisi, but they were in striking distance before the war. What has changed is Russia is now unmasked as an international actor in a 19th century mold; namely, the brutal Russia of old that colonized Koenigsberg and the Baltic States and terrorized Europe.

    The war internationalized what was a provincial disagreement between Russia and some indeterminate, fuzzy-wuzzy, vaguely Western ethnic group into an international incident. The Georgians did not lose anything they could protect. Their only protection was and is public opinion and perhaps public international law.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Yet as I wrote in the post, Georgia is much farther from NATO membership today than it was in 2008. Since getting a formal security guarantee from the west is Georgia’s principal strategic objective, it is hard to call the 2008 conflict anything but a serious setback.

  • Peter

    “On the other hand, there’s some bitterness that we [the U.S.] don’t do more. Where is Georgia’s membership in NATO? Where are missiles Georgia needs to protect itself? Why is the US trying to ‘reset’ its relationship with Russia, and isn’t this a cynical sacrifice of Georgia’s vital interests?”

    What, it’s America’s God mandated responsibility to provide for Georgia’s protection and to insure its freedom?

    Those people are delusional to expect that, and you should make every effort possible to sober them up, Mr. Mead, before they continue to hurt themselves with rash acts.

    And for the rest of you, understand this. The U.S. will be trimming back on the burden it has been carring of guaranteeing world peace since 1945 — 65 year ago.

    The U.S. is bankrupt, thanks in no small part for playing the role of the world’s policeman to an unappreciative world.

    Georgia can go pound sand — not the Peach State mind you, but the country.

  • J-P

    @ Patrick Armstrong

    2003? So, way back during the Second Chechen War (and Shevardnadze’s tenure!). I see. Things are a little different in Tiflis now – don’t know if you’ve heard. Same article describes how the militants were removed. So there we have it.

    Joe makes several good points above that obviously bear repeating. Somehow, I feel the background was lost in Dr. Mead’s analysis.

  • Haim

    The real problem with Georgians is that they want to be like Israel, but fail to understand that American (and by that I mean all-American, not Jewish-American) love affair with Israel began when Jews showed their military prowess and readiness to sacrifice. Put simply, Americans like to associate with winners (or at the least, fighters), and Georgians are seen now as quitters who start something they doesn’t know how to finish.

  • Halfon

    Not only is the current Georgian leadership reckless, it is also stupid and dangerous to its people. While supposedly badly seeking foreign investment in Georgia, they effectively “kidnap” and put in jail an international businessman, needless to say on “fake, made-up charges”, who had won an international arbitration award against Georgia and who had been seeking to settle it at a much lower number. (See Fuchs – October 14). The leadership, led by gangster Minister of the Interior, is now seeking ransom. WHO IN THE WORLD WOULD EVEN DREAM OF INVESTING IN GEORGIA ? The leadership response shall be, as usual, halfon kidnap and ransom.

  • And, J-P, here’s another assertion, this time from a Georgian.

  • Earl of Sandwich

    The idea that Georgia could have gotten a security guarantee from the West if it hasn’t provoked a war is absurd. As long as Georgia had a border dispute with Russia it would not be allowed into NATO. And Georgia has no way to force Russia to settle the dispute.

    Beyond with, why does Europe care one way or the other if Georgia is annexed by Russia?

  • John Koch

    Finland after WWII would be a better model than Israel for Georgia to follow. Geography and other, US current military commitments more important to the US, not sentiment, dictate this. Finland developed its democratic government and its economy while taking care not to offend the Russians and especially NOT trying to join NATO or establish close military ties with the West. By playing it safe in foreign and military affairs Finland managed to remain free domestically (although not entirely sovereign), and became prosperous and accepted as an established nation before asking politely for return of parts of its territory (Porkkala) that had been leased (at gunpoint) to the Soviet Union. It worked for the Finns and it’s the only approach that could work for Georgia.

  • David

    I have not read more realistic article about Georgia for years. Many thanks to the author of “Special Providence.”

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  • Jeffrey


    1. Georgia has one way out of its mess; the recognition of Abkhazia. In this they lose nothing, aside from a few dusty old bits of pride, as they will never regain Abkhazia under any circumstances, and, as they stand to win suge huge profits if they can manage to exact them, this is the only good road and the one that can break their stalemate. M. Saakashvili is practically a sociopath, with charm, who needs to be told by the US to leave power at the first possible moment. I am afraid things are going to get worse there if they don’t begin to get better.

  • IA

    When speaking about the visa free regime with North Caucasus thouse mistakenly thinking it as a danger and threat forget to about number of very important points. First, nobody has mentioned existing humanitarian necessity of introducing a visa free regime. There are ethnic Georgians residing, for example in Vladikavkaz [Russia’s North Ossetian Republic]. There are 100,000 Georgian citizens of Ossetian origin residing in Georgia and they have relatives in the North Caucasus and they find it increasingly difficult to see each other because they have to go to Moscow and wait for the visa for weeks which is both costly and not practical. Also, many in North Caucasus can not afford sending their children to Moscow universities and their access to higher education is very law. In Georgia they can both more easily and cheaply send their kids to the Georgian universities. Also, the propaganda campaign that Kremlin are mounting by trying to show Georgia as an enemy in Caucasus will easily be refuted if the contacts between Georgia and North Caucasus intensifies. Tother with this, free travel does not imply free travel for terrorists as such and there is a proper border check point functioning at Upper Larsi to oversee that no millitants can go through. As to the allegations of Georgia harbouring terrorists it is absurd and has been proven by number of international organizations. Diplomats accredited to Georgia have many times visited Pankisi gorge and found nothing but peaceful population there. True, there was a special operation conducted in Georgia (during Shevardnadze’s times) to clear Pankisi area of any possible chechen rebels there (we are speaking about the period when there was an active war between Russia and Chechnya and period when groundbreaking police and MIA reforms in Georgia were not even in the making) and nobody is either denying it or hiding the fact but the simple thuth is the situation has changed dramatically since then. All the international organizations present in the country will confirm this point.

    And what is more important, let’s not forget that it was Russia who introduced a visa regime with Georgia without any consultations and also without any consultations did not introduce visa regime with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adjara region. Thus, it is not a new practise in the area and Russia created this very precedent!

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Even so, it would be wiser for Georgia to consult with its friends before taking a step that affects their interests.

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  • This post proves and exemplifies the frequent fallacy committed by Western social scientists with pompous academic credentials, who think they can become experts on Georgia and the Transcaucasus region after just one or two visits. The American nationalist, revisionist historian Walter Russell Mead is no exception to this rule. Of course, it would have been much better for him to stick to what he knows how to distort and embellish the best – namely the history of Anglo-American accomplishments. But academic figures of his stature are often characterized by such oversized egos that they are sure that their reputation is unassailable. The response below only partly aims to dispel this egotistical self-perception. It is largely intended to rebut some of Mead’s most ostentatious claims and factually incorrect observations.

    In Mead’s highly amateur hodgepodge of facts, myths, truths, half-truths, unexamined assumptions and sweeping generalizations disguised as an authoritative crash course on Georgia, particular emphasis is placed on the incompetence, unpredictability and impulsiveness of the Georgian ruling elite as personified by the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili. To recap Mead’s argument – bad decisions by the Georgian government produced “trust deficit” in European capitals and Washington and now Tbilisi is destined to linger in the dangerous geopolitical limbo, wherein it has no choice but to exercise “strategic patience” and to conduct modest foreign policy entirely subservient to American interests in the Caucasus region and vis-à-vis Russia. This, Mead argues, will hopefully, at some indefinite point, lead to closer relationship (but no membership) with European Union and perhaps better chances (but highly unlikely) at being considered for NATO membership. What a bright perspective indeed.

    First of all, since the August 2008 war blaming all of Georgia’s misfortunes on the Georgian government has become a favorite pastime of many European and some American analysts, observers, experts as well as government officials. Pointing out real and perceived drawbacks of the Georgian decision makers in reality masks the inability and unwillingness of the American and European political establishment to do anything about Russia’s aggressive policy towards those post-Soviet countries that lean in the Western direction. Growing strategic dependence on Russia in Afghanistan further complicates and actually precludes any meaningful Western response in this regard. The result of this sad state of affairs has been the marked increase of Russian influence across the post-Soviet space.

    Ukraine is the best case in point because anyone, who is even remotely familiar with current developments in that important country, has plenty to worry about because the Kremlin-friendly government of President Viktor Yanukovich has been systematically eroding the democratic achievements of the Orange Revolution. Moreover, following direct orders from Moscow Yanukovich now began to develop relations with world’s rogue authoritarian leaders as evidenced by the recent visit to Kyiv by the virulently anti-American leader of Venezuela Hugo Chavez.

    In Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, the contours of the unequal and awkward Russo-American geopolitical condominium are beginning to materialize. Regardless of flowering rhetoric of official pronouncements, statements and speeches to the contrary, at the center of the American approach (because reactive positioning cannot be called policy) to Kyrgyzstan remains the uninterrupted operation of the Manas Transit Center. However, it is an open secret that the Kremlin exerts significant influence over Kyrgyz political circles and any decision on Manas will be taken only with Moscow’s approval. The success of the parliamentary model in Kyrgyzstan, which is espoused by the Obama administration, is far from assured considering Russian determination to keep American influence there checked at all times.

    This brings us to Georgia. It is clear that in the context of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, Georgia has become an inconvenient ally. The current U.S. approach to Georgia is predicated on the repetition of the familiar mantra of respect to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which does not really oblige Washington to do anything to change the untenable status quo there. This approach can be otherwise crudely summed up in a pithy American expression – words don’t cost a thing.

    To be sure, in exchange for the generous diplomatic and financial support from Washington, Tbilisi, as a stalwart American ally, does what it can. Georgia’s contribution to the fledgling mission in Afghanistan is certainly appreciated by the U.S. and NATO officials, but apparently disregarded by Mead, who never mentions it in his meandering screed. Similarly the close bilateral cooperation in the counter-proliferation area that yielded the arrest and transfer to the United States of Amir Hossein Ardebili, one of the key Iranian arms dealers responsible for procurement abroad of weapons and dual-use items for Iranian armed forces, also somehow escaped Mead’s attention. It should be noted here that the Iranian government exerted significant pressure on Georgia to release Ardebili, but Tbilisi refused and risked angering Tehran. As a matter of fact, this individual was of such importance to Tehran’s clerical regime that during the official visit to Iran last year the Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze reportedly apologized to the Iranians for the Ardebili affair. Perhaps Mead would learn a thing or two by reading the most comprehensive and richly detailed account of the Operation Shakespeare, which was compiled by the investigative reporter John Shiffman and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in September:

    Second, with no apparent knowledge of the developments preceding the August 2008 war Mead asserts that Georgia pursued “reckless and aggressive policies toward Russia in the summer of 2008.” Had he read the relevant parts of the report prepared by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (more frequently referred to as simply Tagliavini Report for the name of the Swiss diplomat, Heidi Tagliavini, who chaired the mission), he would have known that the Russian-Georgian war was preceded by the pattern of escalating tensions in which the Georgian-populated villages in South Ossetia were subjected to the increasing small arms fire and shelling by the South Ossetian separatist paramilitary forces.

    Moreover, in the unlikely chance Mead would want to venture to examine the events that transpired in the spring of 2008, he will discover that with some support from Germany and active participation and mediation of the then Georgian Ambassador to UN, Irakli Alasania, the Georgian side approached the Abkhaz with the proposition that envisioned the partition of the territory of Abkhazia in return for the recognition of its independence. However, due to the pressure from Russia the Abkhaz rejected the partition proposal, which envisioned the reintegration of the Georgian-populated Gali region into Georgia in exchange for Tbilisi’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence.

    With regard to the warnings from the Bush administration not to antagonize Russia, Mead ought to consider the official visit to Georgia by the then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in July of 2008, less than a month before the beginning of hostilities in South Ossetia. Just as the Georgian airspace was being violated by the Russian aircraft, Secretary Rice casually assured the Georgian President: “We always fight for our friends.” (For full transcript of that joint press conference, visit: In hindsight not the best choice of words given the extremely charged atmosphere on the eve of the conflict in which misperceptions and misinterpretations could have happened easily. In general, the deliberations on the American side prior, during and after the August war are meticulously described by Ronald Asmus in his seminal study A Little War that Shook the World, which Mead can buy here:

    Third, Mead expresses concern over the Georgian government’s decision to introduce the visa-free regime for the residents of the North Caucasus partly because he is concerned for the safety of the American expats living and working in Georgia and partly because such a move would irritate Russians. What Mead fails to realize is that the aforementioned decision serves Georgia’s long-term national interests in that volatile region. The best way to promote people-to-people interaction is to have a visa-free regime. The improvement of relations with the North Caucasian neighbors, over time, will have a positive impact on Georgia’s image among them. Developing good neighborly relations with the North Caucasian republics is of utmost importance to Georgia. Tbilisi remembers all too well what the neglect of this region produced in the early 1990s when, on the wave of separatist conflicts in Georgia, the North Caucasus region was permeated by the anti-Georgian sentiments. In presuming that all North Caucasians willing to take advantage of the visa-free regime are rebels or are somehow connected to them Mead commits another ignorant mistake, which actually borders on ethnic prejudice, the kind that is popular in certain Russian circles.

    Fourth, by the time the doors of NATO may finally open for Georgia in accordance with the Bucharest summit commitments, the alliance may cease to exist altogether. Mead would hopefully benefit from reading about NATO’s inconsistent enlargement policy, diminished internal cohesion and inadequate military spending in this article:

    The problems within NATO are manifest and they go beyond the apt typology of “Old” vs. “New” Europe introduced by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, they are perhaps the most painfully manifested in disagreements over Afghanistan and mandatory defense expenditures. Another area of constant tensions within the alliance is represented by the topic of contingency planning. For many representatives of “New” Europe in the alliance, who began to feel uneasy over Article V (collective defense) in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war this issue became extremely important. The Baltic States in particular felt defenseless and they insisted and belatedly received some assurance in the form of military exercises, which were most recently held in Latvia last month. Similar concern by Poland had to be allayed by the deployment of the Patriot missile battery and limited U.S. contingent there, which serves very little military purpose, but has tremendous political and symbolic significance.

    Irrespective of what will be decided at the approaching Lisbon summit, in the context of the global economic crisis some NATO member-states intend to significantly reduce their military expenditures as part of the austerity measures. The recently brokered Anglo-French defense agreements are basically creative cost-cutting mechanisms, which make sense between the two highly compatible military force structures. However, it is easy to see in the medium- to long-run that unsustainable social welfare systems of European NATO members will invariably lead to more defense cuts to the detriment of the alliance. Therefore, while searching for external security guarantees will remain a top priority for Georgia, NATO may not be the only available option.

    Finally, perhaps the only thing about which Mead is right is in pointing out that the Georgians should learn to be far more circumspect with regard to voicing their preferences between the Democratic or Republican parties. The Democratic Party has a long memory and in many ways the current Georgian government is still wrongly viewed by many party insiders and heavyweights as the neoconservative experiment closely associated with the Bush administration and its democracy promotion in the post-Soviet space. Overcoming this bias will not be easy, but it is not impossible. Georgians are not that beholden to illusions as it may seem at first glance by Mead. Many centuries of survival against the overwhelming odds taught them to be pragmatic and to balance the interests of other, more powerful players. Most recent confirmation of the latter was the official visit to Tbilisi by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki this past Wednesday.

    To Mead there is only this left to say – thanks for nothing. Your demagogic admonition to Georgia, its people and its leaders can be summed up in the following funny and bitter title of the article, which appeared on August 25, 2008 in the popular American satirical magazine The Onion: “U.S. Advises Allies Not To Border Russia.” Such advice is not worth a dime and you ought to keep it to yourself.

  • peter mamradze

    Dear Mr.Mead,

    I think your article is deep and precise. I often cite fragments of it in my public speeches. Your phrase ,,Georgia’s worst enemy could scarcely have harmed the country more” could be applied to many other ,,deeds” of President Saakashvili and his team. The main problem for Georgia is, that there is no force to balance and check Saakashvili’s reckless activities. Elite corruption is flourishing. Decisions are often made spontaneously and implemented instantly, nobody from President’s team dares to argue with him (like sending more than 2 thousand(!) troops (policemen, special units etc) to Kiev as observers for Presidential elections there).

    I was member of Parliament 1n 1992-1995 and I am member of Parliament now and I agree to Sir M.Rifkind, who said last year, that now Georgia faces the greatest dangers for it’s statehood since declaration of independence in 1991.

    With respect,

    Peter Mamradze, MP

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