In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia. Last August, in 2021, the Atlantic Council called that event “Putin’s green light.” In 2008, George W. Bush was in the twilight of his presidency, U.S. forces were busy trying to hand over sections of Iraq to local forces, while Gen. David Petraeus took the reins of CENTCOM. In Afghanistan, the U.N. investigated an August, 2008 deadly gunship incident that killed dozens of Afghan civilians.
Georgia’s two-day capitulation to Vladimir Putin’s invasion barely registered in the news.
In an EU-brokered ceasefire negotiated by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Georgia ceded the pro-Moscow South Ossetia and Abkhazia breakaway regions to Putin. Since 2008, Putin has ignored his part of the agreement, carving more and more of Georgia into Russia (illegally and unrecognized by the international community) every year.
In 2014, Putin rolled into Crimea, and suffered only a slap on the wrist, with sanctions he never felt. The Atlantic Council thinkpiece quotes Daniel Fried, a Foreign Service veteran who most recently served as Coordinator for Sanctions Policy under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Before that, he was Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs under George W. Bush and Obama.
The conflict provided a number of lessons. First, Putin was prepared to start a war in order to force a country that he regarded as within Russia’s sphere of influence to heel. Putin repeated this with Ukraine in 2014. Second, the US was not able to prevent the conflict (though it tried), but was able to prevent Putin from destroying Georgian sovereignty in the immediate aftermath. The US was able to do much the same for Ukraine: it could not reverse Russia’s immediate gains in Ukraine, but did help Ukraine prevent Putin from destroying Ukrainian sovereignty.
In 2008, then-Senator Joe Biden worked with George W. Bush to give Georgia a financial rescue package that kept the democratically elected president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, in power until he was voted out in 2012. It was Saakashvili who played into Putin’s hands by ordering Georgia’s military to attack South Ossetian militia who were shelling Georgian villages. Putin went in with that pretext.
This is the scenario Biden knows. Biden has been fighting the 2008 and 2014 contained wars with Putin, but Russia’s leader is now more emboldened. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not fall into the trap Saakashvili triggered. He did not push back against Donbas militia, though he continued a bloody war in the contested region. Disingenuously, Russia continued encouraging separatists to violate the 2015 Minsk agreement, which also provoked Zelensky and the Ukrainian parliament to continue the fighting.
Nobody at the helm of the State Department’s diplomatic corps and the Biden White House thought Putin would back down, but they thought he could be persuaded by sanctions and negotiations, as happened in 2008.
Putin is beyond sanctions. They don’t hurt him. Seizing Putin’s known foreign assets won’t hurt him. Seizing all wealth of the oligarchs—the new Boyars—who surround Putin, is a long, complex exercise that makes rooting out the drug lords of Mexico or the families of the Cosa Nostra look like a local drug bust.
Worst of all, Putin controls the nuclear strike forces of the former Soviet Union. He controls the rumored “dead hand” Perimeter system that can cause the entire Russian ICBM force to launch at pre-determined Armageddon targets. I’ve spoken to not a few Russian friends and they all agree on this one thing: Putin is not bluffing about going nuclear.
The stakes on Ukraine have gone far beyond saving national face, or economic interests. For Putin, it’s about raw survival, domination, and the new era of his Russian empire. Putin is not prepared to lose.
In 2008, Putin was testing the water while America was distracted and militarily engaged. He extracted a treaty from Georgia that kept it out of NATO permanently, the ability to keep Russian forces in South Ossetia with no clear border of where that ends and Georgia begins, and essentially absorbed Georgia into his sphere of control.
In 2014, Putin took Crimea with barely a whimper from NATO or the west, despite Ukraine itself remaining on a path toward NATO membership. NATO didn’t really want Ukraine, though. Then-Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter was making hay on his name in cozy corporate crony deals with Ukrainian officials. President Donald Trump tried to strong-arm Zelensky (his “perfect call”) into a deal to make Hunter’s game an election issue, which bought him an impeachment trial right as COVID-19 hit.
Neither Bush, nor Obama, nor Trump, nor Biden had the right approach to Putin. Nothing they did hurt him. Charles Krauthammer called Obama’s response to Putin’s Crimea grab in 2014 “pathetic.”
It’s delusional enough to think that Putin — in seizing Crimea, threatening eastern Ukraine, destabilizing Kiev, shaking NATO, terrifying America’s East European allies and making the West look utterly helpless — was actually losing. But to imagine that Putin saw it that way as well and was waiting for American diplomacy to save him from a monumental blunder is totally divorced from reality.
Bush was preoccupied. Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry believed that international pressure, weak sanctions and “offramps” for Putin to “de-escalate” were enough. Putin laughed.
Trump, a Putin-admirer, tried to make “deals” with him. Putin was always open to deals, as long as he won. I believe the only reasons Putin didn’t make his Ukraine move with Trump in power were (a) Trump didn’t believe in the power of international law either, and would side with whoever gave him (personally) the best deal, so he was unpredictable; and (b) COVID-19 played havoc with logistics and supplies. That’s it. Otherwise, we’d be living through this in 2020, with Trump in the White House. I shudder.
Biden, however, is the Goldilocks of presidents for Putin. He has the same smarmy trust in the international order that John Kerry and the Davos crowd believe holds the world together. He is overconfident in the effectiveness of sanctions and world rebuke on the actions of despots. He is trusting of the ability of “the people” to rise up and dethrone authoritarian leaders, having lived through Obama’s “Arab Spring.”
None of the above apply to Vladimir Putin. I heard that in the Moscow press, few are even talking about sanctions. Yes, many in the intellectual, arts, and professional classes care enough about the moral wrong of “might means right” to get up and protest at their own personal risk. Putin is now rounding them up in a Stalinesque purge, some probably never to be seen again. But the average Russian citizen only cares about the price of kasha, kvass, and vodka. If you want to really piss off Russians, blow up their vodka warehouses and plants.
Russians have lived with wars and bloodshed practically since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took over the Belsan school, and held over 1,000 hostages—students, teachers, and other staff. Russian forces stormed the school with overwhelming force, resulting in the deaths of over 325 people, including 186 school children. This happened under Putin’s watch and nobody in his circle ever took responsibility for the disaster.
Russia fought three deadly wars in Chechnya, a civil war in Georgia and Abkhazia, a takeover of Transnistria from Moldova, two wars in North Ossetia, a five-year civil war in Tajikistan including a U.N. contingent from 15 nations, a war on terror in North Caucasus against ISIS from 2009-2017, a war to keep client state Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, and an expeditionary war in the Central African Republic. All this was done while keeping an eye on the jewel of the Black Sea, Ukraine.
Russians look at wars like Americans look at presidential campaigns: an ongoing dumpster fire, necessary evil which will afflict them forever.
This war in Ukraine is particularly moving because of the brave defense of the Ukrainian people, and the seeming inability of the Russians to quickly and antiseptically take their objectives. If Zelensky had played by Biden’s script and evacuated, as the U.S. offered, then Russia would be in control of Kyiv right now, and the war would be over, with a Putin-installed puppet regime calling the shots. You know it’s true.
But Zelensky stayed, Ukrainians fought on, and the posh diplomatic world that once believed in the power of international law to restrain tyranny and hegemony piece by piece began to see the raw power battle playing out. Without military aid beyond a few weapons and ammunition, the Ukrainians will (likely) lose. At some point, the last Ukrainian bullet will be fired, the last anti-tank missile launched, the last Molotov cocktail mixed, the last power station destroyed. Russia is now tightening the siege of Kyiv, slowly getting back on its feet with logistical supply, and advancing its cyber war capabilities to cut off Ukraine’s internet (though Elon Musk is a formidable opponent).
Germany needs only look back 75 years, inside the lifespan of living memory, to see the result of such hubris and unrestrained evil. It’s possible one nation or another may be the first to set boots on the ground, or aircraft over the skies of Ukraine, probably from Polish soil. If it is to happen, it needs to be soon, though this war is developing literally hour by hour. This possibility is what drove Putin to the nuclear button.
The Biden-Blinken-Kerry camp still holds out confidence that negotiations in Belarus might bear fruit. It’s unlikely Putin will instruct his team to accept anything less than complete surrender from Ukraine: no NATO, cede Donetsk and Luhansk to Russian control, forever give up claims on Crimea, and agree to “de-militarization.” This would give Russia a free pass to do in Ukraine what it’s done in Georgia. It’s likely Russia will also ask for Zelensky to step down, which he will not do. The negotiations will almost certainly fail.
Putin seems to be not bluffing about his nuclear threat, but we don’t know how trigger-happy he is. Would a robust defense of Kyiv start a nuclear war? Would a buildup of forward-deployed NATO troops in eastern Poland? Would an elevation of Finland and Sweden from “partner countries” to full NATO membership? All but the first option above would abandon Ukraine to its own fate.
Fourteen years ago, we knew Ukraine was one of Putin’s eventual targets, because experts and analysts saw it, and Putin as much said so. NATO didn’t want Ukraine because it was a dog with too many fleas. Four American presidents played political football with Ukraine’s defense. Now President Biden thinks the same formula of sanctions, negotiations, and diplomacy will work, when we see plainly it won’t.
Brian Whitmore, the Director of the Russia Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, podcaster of “The Power Vertical,” and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Texas-Arlington, as well as a fellow of the Atlantic Council, summed it up last August.
The August 2008 invasion of Georgia was a Beta test for future aggression against Russia’s neighbors and a dry run for the tactics and strategies that would later be deployed in the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
Another important lesson from the invasion of Georgia is that we need to pay close attention to what Russia does to its neighbors because this is often a harbinger of what Moscow will soon be doing to the West. When Russian forces attacked Georgia on the night of August 7-8, 2008, it was preceded by a cyberattack, a disinformation campaign, and an all-out effort to meddle in that country’s domestic politics. These are all tactics that are now very familiar to the United States and its allies. Thirteen years ago, a new era of Kremlin aggression began and it went unchecked. Today we are paying the price.
President Biden responded correctly to the cyberattack, and the disinformation campaign, but was not prepared for the Ukrainians to defend their country so tenaciously and successfully. In truth, it seems that Biden was betting on Ukraine to fail, and “might means right” to win quickly. That’s why he was Putin’s Goldilocks.
Biden was prepared to take the loss and deal with the consequences. He was woefully unprepared for the win. Now that the stakes have been raised to a world nuclear standoff, we can’t afford to take the loss.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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