The Eagle and the Bear

Author: Gary Hart

Two PowersA post-Cold War mystery prevails.  Why, almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War, are there still so many members of the U.S. foreign policy community (often called foreign policy elites) who seem instinctively to dislike the Russians?

Reasons can be found: Russia is not yet a democratic society; it is far from having a genuine free press; political dissent is discouraged; power and wealth are concentrated; too many Russians lean toward authoritarianism; and so forth.

All these are plausible arguments, except they overlook one thing: there are a number of areas where less antagonistic relations with Russia would help the U.S.  These include: preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power; containing the threat posed by North Korea; preventing al Qaeda from making inroads into Muslim republics on Russia’s southern border; controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; continuing to help us resupply our forces in Afghanistan; and a wide variety of other common interests.

Instead, we periodically find a way to poke the Bear in the eye.  We quickly took the side of the Georgians in their conflict with Russia, though later facts demonstrated Georgian provocation.  We continue to consider placing missile defenses near the Russian border.  Until recently we pursued NATO membership for the Ukraine and Georgia, even though a majority of Ukrainians oppose it and few Europeans want to go to war with Russia on behalf of the Georgians.  And two decades after the end of the Cold War we still maintain trade restrictions (called the Jackson-Vanik amendment) against the Russians for no good reason.

Following the adage that we don’t have permanent friends, we have permanent interests, we have many more common interests with the Russians than we have matters in opposition.  We do not have to compromise our principles in order to pursue those common interests.  Nothing requires us to soften criticisms for undemocratic behavior.  Nothing requires us to lower our standards. 

It is to be hoped that the Obama administration will rethink the harder line taken by the Bush-Cheney administration, and the president has indicated his intention of doing so.  The first step is a new nuclear arms agreement, presently being negotiated, to be completed by December. 

Our greatest common interest with the Russians is to get rid of as many nuclear weapons as possible between us and lead the world in eliminating nuclear arsenals altogether.

9 Responses to “The Eagle and the Bear”

  1. Richard Says:

    The sentiment is fine but to reference your quote above from Thomas Jefferson – “…in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

    Do the Russian Federation and the United States have mutual interests that can be productively pursued. Of course. Are there areas that the US should not show any particular flexibility – also “of course”.

    Your observations are far too brief and shallow. Using Georgia as an example of US policy to irritate Russia is a mistake. Sakaashvili is not the leadership needed by Georgia and deliberately provoked Russia to a certain extent. But the EU report also blamed Russia for going too far. Indeed, US policy must stand by a principal of defending the territorial integrity of members of the UN. The fact that Russia invaded Georgian territory under the flimsy excuse of protecting Russian citizens to whom it has, over the years, issued passports, is unsupportable. The US was correct in standing for Georgia in this case despite the utter stupidity of its president.

    Furthermore, bending to Russian desires to reassert its control, overt or otherwise, over Poland and the Baltic States is intolerable. For the US to bend to the desires of – and lets face it – an undemocratic dictorship that makes a policy of murdering its critics in the political arena and press – is not standing on principal.

    At this point, frankly, if it means the reset button is pushed back to the cold war – so be it. Russia is not a responsible international player and is dangerous to democratic regimes on its western border. The US should do everything to reassure the Baltic states, Poland and, yes, Georgia, that we will protect their autonomy.

    Finally, we should bend our efforts to securing Turkey as a firm ally.

    Your desire for good, cooperative relations with the Russian Federation are admirable. However, I have lived for more than 14 years within its alleged sphere of influence and believe that the Russian government has reverted to the Soviet slogan of ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours – is negotiable.

  2. C. Kasey Kitterman Says:

    Maybe they’re just resting, waiting for us to lower our guard. The hackneyed expression “the U.S. plays poker, the Russians play Chess” comes to mind. In the same vein; if you want a friend buy a dog; after 8 years of Bush, the U.S. needs a dog sled team. I don’t think our country has done well in post Cold War situations, where the opponent hasn’t been laid to physical waste. We seem to get our allies after financing reconstruction efforts, rather than the conquering stage.

  3. Michael Says:

    Richard’s post reminds me of the arguments we heard from the American Right during the era of Détente, particularly in regard to the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords, which ideologues in this country relentlessly attacked as a weak-kneed give away to the Soviets, but which dissidents inside the East Bloc later said was key in keeping their movements alive by giving them a moral and legal legitimacy they didn’t have before.

    Of course there will be certain basic principals that we can never give up, but not engaging in diplomacy when ever possible just gives us more of the thuggish foreign policy of the Bush years, which produced nothing but confrontation and conflict. Smacking the Russians down at every opportunity, particularly over something with the dubious strategic value of missile defense, only increases tensions and hardens positions for no good reason. Russians, still humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, want to be seen as a world power, yet they can’t afford a return to the Cold War (and neither can we).

    As to Senator Hart’s question about the foreign policy establishment in this country, it could be that there is simply the inertia of inherent distrust that stems from decades of serving in the diplomatic corps during the Cold War; or there could be a diplomatic equivalent of the military industrial complex in which State Dept. sections and careers are better served with funding, assignments and prestige when tensions are high.

    On the political side, we have a Neocon opposition establishment that is always looking for an excuse to replay the Who-Lost-China card; always ready to scream bloody murder for political ends when new diplomatic openings are made, or when the old Us v. Them Cold War theology is challenged. Is there any reason besides Florida’s 27 electoral votes that we still have a useless trade embargo against Cuba?

  4. LG Rooney Says:

    I never cease to be flabbergasted that Russia was granted application of Jackson-Vanik after the Soviet Union disintegrated. We know that nothing makes friends, a/o tears down barriers, better than cooperation. Yes, our support of NATO entry to all and sundry except Russia, desire to place missiles in former Soviet Bloc countries, our seemingly blind support of policies in countries with long-standing grudges against the Russians who use that support as cover to poke Russia in the eye regularly, and support of overtly anti-Russian politicians in countries surrounding Russia, all feed Russian paranoia about the US. And, that is the basis of what one needs to know in dealing with the Russians. They are paranoid.

    They have a massive country that has been invaded repeatedly throughout history. They have commodities everyone wants. They have a dwindling demographic base, a brain drain in sciences, and a limited economic structure. And, they are paranoid. They want to continue to appear strong and their control of the commodity base and nuclear weapons are their trump card (the latter more than the former because that is what ostensibly provides protection of the resource base).

    As long as we go it alone in economics, the environment, and, most importantly, foreign and defense policies, we will continue to see the Russians alienate themselves as they are left to stew in their paranoia. We don’t need to hold their hand, we don’t need to pat them on the head, and we don’t need to kowtow to their paranoia.

    We need to support politicians who can better represent their own people’s interest, e.g., in Ukraine, not anti-Russian or pro-American hacks but those looking out for Ukraine’s best interests which will necessarily include deep involvement with Russia, its economy and its politics. It would also do us a lot more good on the world stage to support democratic “localism” since it goes hand-in-hand with our (what I think is not only) rhetoric about the strength of democratic systems, i.e., again using Ukraine as an example, a pro-Ukrainian president, who has the backing of America, who is neither openly pro-/anti-American nor pro-/anti-Russian but interested in what is best for Ukraine will, because of economic, political, historical, cultural, military and geographic realities, be better for relations with Russia and enhance our standing as a fair player in the world of democratic development.

    As long as Russian paranoia has a platform for development of an enemy, and we do our best to assist in building supporting structures for that platform, any action we take in that part of the world will be viewed through the paranoid prism. If we see and treat Russia as a partner rather than a client in democratic development, we will knock down that platform bit by bit. We may raise the ire of the screaming meanies in this country who will always seek out an enemy but they will ultimately be removed to the sidelines of honest debate as a mature policy comes to fruition (despite what will undoubtedly be a few “told you so” moments along the way).

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    Alas, Richard, the nature of the blog is to be brief (but not necessarily shallow). You may wish to check out several books I’ve written relating to this topic. Not to say also about 35 years of thinking about the US-Russian relationship. I have no illusions about Russia’s pursuit of its self-interest. But we have also had a Monroe Doctrine since about 1832 telling everyone else in the world to stay out of our entire hemisphere.
    For LG Rooney, you are right that the Russians see a Cold War policy, Jackson-Vanik, as a continuaton of basically antagonistic polices. No one I am aware of still advocates Jackson-Vanik, yet there it still is.

  6. Tom J. Flaherty Says:

    Monroe Doctrine except as the Belgrado sink and England gets lucky with our help. I’m still bothered by that lapse.

  7. Gary Hart Says:

    The Monroe Doctrine reference was simply to point out that we have had a policy for almost two centuries, namely non-interference in our presumed “sphere of influence”, that we dislike other nations following.

  8. Georgian Says:

    European Union-commissioned report into the causes of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 predictably spread the blame for the conflict around. While Georgia was also censured, the text is devastating to Russia’s narrative of the conflict.

    The initial media coverage has focused on a single sentence in the report, which says that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili essentially started the war by shelling old Georgian town Tskhinvali, the capital of Fake Ossetia, on the evening of August 7. At the same time, the sentence emphasizes that the incident was the culmination of a chain of events and provocations going back months, if not years. Russia jumped on the first element of that conclusion, claiming proof that it had been right all along. Georgia countered by emphasizing the second part, which it called proof that it had been provoked into war. And, in presenting her findings, Tagliavini went one step further than the report itself by saying that, in her eyes, the explanations provided by the Georgian side did not provide a sufficient legal foundation for Tbilisi’s actions on that fateful day.

    That certainly gave Georgia a black eye. The Kremlin’s spin machine immediately swung into action to exploit the statement. (Actually, it swung into action even before the report was issued, giving rise to rumors that Moscow had an advance copy.) However, Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev shouldn’t be too eager for people to read the report closely, since the more closely one reads it, the worse it looks for Moscow.

    That’s because, in many ways, the commission’s findings explode Russia’s official narrative of the war as well. The report makes it clear that this was, first and foremost, a war fought between Georgia and Russia, rather than a conflict between Tbilisi and its unruly provinces. Moscow based its official casus belli on three arguments: that Georgian forces had tried to commit “genocide” against South Ossetians; that Georgians had attacked Russian “peacekeepers”; and that Russia had a right and obligation to come to the defense of Russian citizens in these breakaway regions. None of these arguments are confirmed in the report, and all of them are carefully dissected.

    The EU report finds that because Russia’s distribution of passports to Abkhazians and Ossetians in the years prior to the war was illegal, its rationale of rescuing its “citizens” is invalid as they were not legally Russian.

    The list goes on. The report finds Russian allegations of genocide founded in neither law nor evidence. In other words, they’re not true. And whereas the report does acknowledge a Russian right to protect its peacekeepers, it finds that Moscow’s response “cannot be regarded as even remotely commensurate with the threat to Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.” On the other hand, it faults Russia for failing to intervene against the ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetia and Abkhazia that took place during and after the war. Finally, it castigates Russia’s recognition of the independence of the two breakaway territories as illegal, and as a dangerous erosion of the principles of international law.

    In sum, the official EU inquiry found that none of Russia’s various justifications for its invasion of Georgia hold water, and also faults Russia’s behavior following the conflict, as Moscow continues to be in material breach of the EU-negotiated cease-fire agreement. While the report will be of great use to historians, its main implications should concern the present, because just as the war did not begin in August 2008, the conflict between Russia and Georgia is not over.

    This conflict continues to destabilize a part of Europe to which the West has so far not paid sufficient attention. The EU, now engaged also on the ground in Georgia, must go beyond reluctantly accepting, as it has, that this conflict is a European problem. It needs to overcome its internal divisions and pursue a cohesive strategy toward Georgia—one that takes its basis in the country’s European identity and aspirations, as well as its right to sovereignty and security.

    The larger reason the report matters is that the Russo-Georgian War represents a failure of the European security system we have labored to build since the fall of the Iron Curtain. That system was supposed to ban spheres of influence, prevent the predatory behavior of large countries, and guarantee the security of small ones–in addition to providing warning against growing tensions and giving us mechanisms to prevent war.

    In August 2008, the system faltered. The war represented a clash between the core principle embodied in the Helsinki process, which granted countries the right to choose their own domestic and foreign policy courses–including alliances–and Moscow’s growing determination to create a sphere of privileged interest on its borders. As Foreign Minister Lavrov told Condi Rice at the height of the conflict, Russia’s goal was regime change and the removal of Saakashvili.

    So we should have no illusions. The underlying conflict between Georgia and Russia has not been resolved. Tbilisi still wants to go West, and Moscow still wants to stop it.

    So let’s recap:
    The Council condemns Russia for:
    1. Violating international law by invading Abkhazia (where there was no conflict).
    2. Violating international law by invading Georgia (including mass killings of civilians).
    3. Violating international law by recognizing Abkhazia and so- called South Ossetia (Fake Ossetia).
    4. Violating international law by supporting ethnic cleansing of Georgians.
    5. Lying about ethnic cleansing by Georgians.
    6. Provoking Georgia by failing to curb attacks on it and issuing passports to Ossetians illegally, encouraging them to revolt.
    7. Flouting the Council’s post war demands regarding access to the disputed territories and post-war conduct, with which Georgia is in substantial compliance.

    I wonder how Spain would feel if a neighbouring country started sending arms to Basque separatists, then mercenaries and then building military infrastructure in support of the mercenaries?

    Answers of the Government of Georgia to the Tagliavini Commission

  9. Georgian II Says:

    Dear FriendS:

    I think you will be interested to learn a little more about the history of relations between the peoples and ethnic groups in this conflict region. If you think that this is unimportant, you may ignore this message. Don’t hesitate, I wouldn’t mind.


    First, lets explode the myth disseminated by Mr. Putin and media that back in the mid-18th century, in 1745-1747, Ossetia was the first to become part of the Russian Empire. At that time, it was a united entity; North and South Ossetia were one state.

    Let me assure you – Tskhinvali (capital city of so called South Ossetia) was annexed to Imperial Russia with the rest of eastern Georgia (Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti) in 1801.

    The so-called South Osetia IS NOT A NATIVE LAND OF OSSETIANS and It HAS NEVER BEEN PART OF “United Ossetia”.

    Georgians always lived there and RULED the region even 2000 years before the Ossetians arrival in the 14th-17th centuries as well as after newcomers settled to central Georgia. The so called South Ossetia, which is one and a half times the area of Luxembourg broke away from Georgia in the 19911992 war.

    Georgia remembers Soviet invasion and occupation in 1921 and the reason stated by Bolshevik Russia – Protection of local Communists (inqluding Ossetian Comunists). Today, Russians are protecting ethnic Osetian “Russian Citizens” in historic region of the central Georgia – SHIDA KARTLI!!!. We also remember early 1990’s when invaded two Georgian provinces and was bombing Georgia from sky and black see, enforced 450.000 people (80% of total population – mostly ethnic Georgian refugees) to leave their homes. In addition, at inactivity of the Russian peacemakers in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region were killed more than 2000 civilians of the Georgian nationality in 1994-2007.

    Russia has a history of causing problems in the “near abroad” , around the “whole perimeter” and then coming to “fix” the problem. Place name (toponym) “South Ossetia” for the first time has been used by Russian military, and then civil authorities in the beginning of XIX century. This term had collective character and meant historic-geographical areas of former Georgian Kingdom of Kartli where mainly lived the Ossetian population migrated from the North Caucasus.

    Generally speaking, Georgians and Ossetians have been living in peace with each other except for the episodes in 19181920 and 1991-2008. Both ethnicities have had a high level of interaction and a high rate of intermarriages. The Osetians are originally descendants of the Alans. They became Christians during the early Middle Ages, under Georgian and Byzantine influences. Under Mongol rule, they were pushed out of their homeland south in present-day Republic of Alania (north Caucasus) under Russian rule from 1767. Another part of Osetians migrated towards and over the Caucasus mountains, to Georgia in the central region of Georgia – Tskhinvali, Shida Kartli Under rule of the eastern Georgian Royal Dynasty (abolished by Russians in 1801). Little part of Osetians also moved to in Western Georgian Kingdom Imereti, and principality of Racha ruled by another branch of Bagrationi Dynasty.

    Transformation of the term “South Ossetia” in a designation of administrative-territorial formation with certain administrative borders begins since 1922. Following the Soviet occupation of Georgia (1921) Osetia was ARTIFICIALLY created by Bolsheviks in Georgia and areas with not only Osetian villages, but with mainly Georgian population (eastern Racha & Imeretia and mostly central Kartli) also have been included. In addition, old Georgian town Tskhinvali become a capital city of artificial Osetia (please note: by 1910 ONLY 10% Osetians lived in Tskhinvali). Subsequently, the town became largely Ossetian due to intense urbanization and Soviet Korenizatsiya (“nativization”) policy which induced an inflow of the Ossetians into Tskhinvali. Today, there is an obvious manifold instrumentalization of the local minorities by Russia for the purpose of destroying the Georgian state.

    like this, so called “South Ossetia” was created for the Ossetian minority in central region of Georgia (30 miles from Tbilisi Capital) as a reward for Ossetians political loyalty to Bolshevik Russia and armed rebelions against government of Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1918-1921.

    By the early 18th century, Tskhinvali was a small Georgian “royal town” populated chiefly by monastic serfs of the Georgian orthodox church and serfs of local Georgian aristocrats (such as Prince Matchabeli family, etc.) Tskhinvali was first chronicled by Georgian sources in 1398 as a village in Kartli (central Georgia) though a later account credits the 3rd century AD Georgian king Asphagur of Iberia (eastern Georgia) with its foundation as a fortress. The city contains several monuments of medieval Georgian architecture, with the Kavti Church of St. George being the oldest one dating back to the 8th-10th centuries, as well as Soviet time buildings and the old Jewish Quarter (Jewish lived peacefully in Georgia more than 24 centuries).

    Located on a trade route which linked North Caucasus to Tbilisi and Gori, Tskhinvali gradually developed into a commercial town with a mixed Jewish, Georgian, Armenian and Ossetian population. In the 1910s, its censused population was 5,033 with 42.3% Jews, 33% Georgians, 13.4% Armenians and ONLY 11% Ossetians.

    Having created, (ARTIFICIALLY – in 1922) & funded and fully backed the South Ossetian separatist movement since the Soviet crack-up, in late July the Kremlin ordered its own puppet regime of Kokoiti to provoke the Georgians. In the week prior to the Russian invasion, South Ossetians, aided by Russian peacekeepers, had shelled and raided Georgian villages beyond South Ossetia. President, Mikheil Saakashvili, took the bait and walked into Moscows trap—he ordered Georgian forces to go in and clean out the areas where the “South Ossetian” militias were operating.

    The lessons of the past have demonstrated that shortsightedness, adventurism and extremism in politics invariably lead to a tragedy that makes hundreds and thousands of innocent people suffer.

    Georgian public opinion very often is diverse, on this particular situation everyone, including the people, church, opposition and the authorities, are united and have one opinion: Georgia has been and should remain a unified state.

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