Last Friday's Financial Times interview with Batu Kutelia, Georgia's first deputy defense minister, provides disturbing new insights into what motivated the ill-fated decision by Tbilisi to launch a military attack on Russia's South Ossetian proxies in early August. Titled "Tbilisi admits it miscalculated Russian reaction", the piece shockingly illustrates the incompetence - some would say recklessness - displayed by Georgia's young, ostensibly pro- Western leadership. For example, defense minister Kutelia readily acknowledges that his government "had made the decision to seize the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali despite the fact that its forces did not have enough anti-tank and air defenses to protect themselves against the possibility of serious resistance".
"Unfortunately, we attached a low priority to this. We did not prepare for this kind of eventuality. [...] I didn't think it likely that a member of the UN Security Council and the OSCE would react like this."
The boyish-looking Batu Kutelia is probably too young to remember how Moscow brutally crushed any opposition to its rule within the Warsaw Pact when the Soviet Union was still alive. In that sense, the past couple of weeks have certainly represented a steep learning curve for the Georgian leadership. Following the humiliating defeat of their tiny 20,000-man army at the hand of the Russians, which resulted in 1000-2000 dead civilians and soldiers, triggered more than 160,000 refugees, and caused at least US$1.5 billion in economic damages, Georgia's best and brightest have finally recognized that it's not a good idea to give its giant northern neighbor a convenient pretext to strike back at them with an iron fist. Now, of course, Georgia is asking its Western allies for even more financial and military aid to help rebuild its decimated army and significantly damaged economic infrastructure.
Just one day before Tbilisi launched its attack on South Ossetia, Kurt Volker, the new U.S. ambassador to NATO, had issued a stern warning to the Georgian leadership. "We said 'don't do it, don't be drawn into a military conflict, it's not in your interest.'" Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's blatant disregard for Washington - his most important international political and military backer - is worrisome to say the least and has confirmed Western European fears that the wannabe-maverick is essentially a loose cannon.
Traditionally, history has not been kind to political leaders who lost a war, let alone a war that they triggered at their own volition and over the strong objections of their close political and military allies. The irony, of course, is that Moscow's disproportionate response to Saakashvili's military attack has forced all NATO members to quickly close ranks around Tbilisi in a concerted effort to make the Russians withdraw their troops from Georgia. Even German Chancellor Merkel, who had spearheaded the Franco-German opposition to offering NATO's Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine last April, has now become a strong backer of Georgia's joining the Atlantic Alliance. Professor Charles Kupchan from Georgetown University - who is also an adviser to Barack Obama - summed up the problem very succinctly:
"I think in many respects Saakashvili got too close to the United States and the United States got too close to Saakashvili. It made him overreach, it made him feel at the end of the day that the West would come to his assistance if he got into trouble."
This whole episode clearly illustrates the political moral problems raised by the Georgian leadership's behavior and the West's response to it. If anything, Mikhail Saakashvili's recent reckless military adventures have unfortunately put him on a fast track to NATO membership. In the end, Georgia's swift accession to NATO would represent a stunning turnaround and huge payoff for Mikhail Saakashvili, a high-stakes political gambler who just launched and lost a war against Russia (a country which, by the way, has yet to decide whether or not it will abandon an important commitment to allow NATO to transit goods and supplies to its embattled troops in Afghanistan through its territory).
Ulf Gartzke is the director of the Hanns-Seidel-Foundation's Washington Office and a contributor to The Weekly Standard Blog. These comments reflect his personal views.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
Derek Crosston: Transatlantic
Unity Should Not Isolate Russia
- Marek Swierczynski: Russian Belligerence Will Strengthen Transatlantic Relations
- Wess Mitchell: How America Should Respond to Resurgent Russia