White House-Connected Think Tank Reframes U.S. Policy Toward Georgia (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 195

The Presidents of Russia and the United States Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama. (RIA Novosti)

Former US administrations of both parties formulated their policies toward Georgia in a context of European and Euro-Atlantic interests. Viewing Georgia (along with Azerbaijan) as a strategic asset for energy transit to Europe and for Allied outreach to Asia, those US administrations led the way in anchoring Georgia to the West, in preparation for integration. “Georgia on our mind” became an overused cliché describing US engagement with that country under past US administrations. For its part, the Obama administration seems to have changed that motto to “Russia on our mind,” shaping its Georgia policy mainly as a derivative of its Russia policy.

A study just released by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think-tank closely linked with the Obama White House, reflects the current policy toward Georgia (Samuel Charap and Cory Welt, “A New Approach to the Russia-Georgia Conflict,” October 2010, www.americanprogress.org). It seems to view it through the prism of US-Russia bilateral relations, without a guiding US strategic purpose toward Georgia or the South Caucasus region, and lacking any contextual references to European energy interests, the implications for Turkey and NATO, the supply corridor to Afghanistan, or Georgia’s own contributions to US-led operations there.

The authors accurately describe Moscow’s case for violating the 2008 armistice agreement: “Russians say that they fulfilled the agreement. The forces that fought did withdraw, it’s just that new ones took their places. And they say that the document was signed in a world where the ‘independent states’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which now have basing agreements with Russia, did not exist. That world, they explain, is no more.” This being Russia’s position, “the Obama administration has made a conscious decision to not condition other aspects of the US-Russia relationship on progress on the conflicts — a sensible policy, given the multitude of critical security issues on the bilateral agenda.” Apparently, Russia faces no consequences for breaking agreements, while no lessons were learned about the credibility of the Kremlin’s signature on new agreements with this administration.
CAP’s study  lists “four key [US] policy objectives [regarding Georgia]: preventing a future outbreak of violence, managing the humanitarian situation on the ground, reducing the conflict’s role as a roadblock to cooperation with Russia on other critical security issues, and facilitating the reunification of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia in the long run.”  The first three of these goals imply conserving the existing situation, and are backed up with specific recommendations in the study. The fourth objective is not accompanied by policy recommendations, other than those derived from the three status-quo-oriented goals.
On the first and foremost goal, preventing renewed conflict, the study seems to regard both Georgia and Russia as possible sources of new hostilities. Georgia gets the greater emphasis in this regard. “Russian tanks are firmly ensconced in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are not pulling back any time soon and will deter any rash Georgian efforts to take back the territories by force.” This appears to be the same rationale for Russia’s stationing of “peacekeeping” troops there from1994 to 2008.
Without discussing Russia’s own responsibility for the 2008 war, the study brings up Georgia’s presumed co-responsibility for it. This leads the authors to reject out of hand the idea of supplying defensive arms (anti-tank, air defense) to Georgia. While Tbilisi has submitted such requests through regular diplomatic procedures, only CAP seems to be hearing the Georgian government “become more and more vociferous” on this issue. It is true to say that Washington’s “unspoken policy” of non-approval continues the preceding administration’s policy. However, the threat calculus has changed radically since then while the policy has been maintained.
To stabilize the situation, the study recommends US support for: returning South Ossetia’s authorities to the existing Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism, from which Tskhinvali walked out on; a monitoring visit to South Ossetia by international representatives, “preferably” [i.e., not necessarily] from the existing European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM); possibly leading to periodic, scheduled visits, potentially to be followed by regular monitoring access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia as “the ultimate aim” in this context. Freezing the existing situation would be the undeclared net result for the foreseeable future, reflecting an overriding concern with long-term stability.
Emanating as it does from a think-tank linked with the White House, this study takes exception to some State Department positions. Thus, the “US declaration that the Russian military presence constitutes an occupation under international law,” or “sternly repeating to Russia the mantra of abiding by its international commitments,” are described as ineffective and counterproductive in this study. The State Department, however, does cite that “mantra” to Moscow, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has in fact introduced the terms “Russian occupation” and “occupied Georgian territories” to official usage since July of this year.