There is no excusing Vladimir Putin's bloody invasion of Georgia (yes, it was Putin; Dmitri Medvedev has been the president since May, but it was now-Prime Minister Putin who flew to a border staging area to confer with Russian generals). Still, we ought to try to understand what is motivating Putin and his fellow Russian revanchists. And, as the West confronts its own weakness in response—Putin well knows that NATO is bogged down in Afghanistan, America is stretched thin in Iraq and Europe depends on his energy lifeline—we should acknowledge that at least some of the blame lies, as it does so often, with our own hubris. Since the cold war ended, the United States has been pushing the buttons of Russian frustration and paranoia by moving ever further into Moscow's former sphere of influence. And we have rarely stopped to consider whether we were overreaching, even as evidence mounted that the patience of a wealthier and more assertive Russia was wearing very thin.
The proximate cause of what one U.S. official said Monday "appears to be a full invasion of Georgia"—though Medvedev announced a ceasefire today—is the long-festering dispute between that country's ambitious pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and Moscow over two separatist regions. But the seeds of Russia's aggression lie in the sense of humiliation that Moscow's proud power elites have felt at the hands of the West going back to the Clinton administration's unceasing efforts to bring what used to be the Soviet bloc—and post-Soviet Russia itself—into the West's sphere of influence. The policy started with the high-handed (and mostly failed) economic advice we gave to Moscow on free-market economics in the early '90s—the era of "privatization" (the Russians called it "grabitization"), which led directly to the reign of the hated oligarchs.
It continued with our efforts to encourage the former Soviet satellites and republics to come and join the West's party, both as members of NATO and, prospectively, the European Union. That policy began with the former satellite states of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which joined NATO in 1999, continued with the Baltic states, and then forged ahead with Washington's active support of the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and its feckless encouragement of their Westernized, pro-NATO presidents. Last April NATO invited in two more Eastern European members: Croatia and Albania.
With each push into the old Soviet bloc, we aggravated anew the raw nerve of Russian paranoia about Western intentions. Putin went from obligingly suggesting he would be pleased to be a "partner" with NATO to seeing it as a threat. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote in The Washington Post today that the United States made a "serious blunder" by pressing into the Caucasus, which Russia has dominated for centuries. It is difficult to exaggerate the sense of dismemberment and existential dread that Russian elites felt especially at the loss of the Ukraine, the breadbasket nation that has always been central to their concept of a "Greater Russia." Georgia, another breadbasket and location of a critical pipeline, is the birthplace of Stalin, who's enjoying a new revisionist popularity in Russia. Putin warned repeatedly that he would never permit NATO in the Caucasus, but we kept shrugging this off as more bluff and bluster. Once you've driven a bear into a cave, it may be wise to stop poking him with a stick. We seemed to delight in it.
The Bush administration has only stepped up this policy—it is one of the few areas where there has been real continuity between Clinton and Bush—with its unwavering effort to set up missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. We persisted even as Russia grew richer and far more self-confident, Putin planted all his old KGB pals in positions of political power and gave them giant state companies to run, and post-Soviet Russia evolved into a very different kind of political system—one that a senior U.S. official described to me two years ago as nearly "fascist" in structure. We kept pretending that while Russia was getting balky and difficult, it was fundamentally as amenable to "Westernization" as it seemed to be under Boris Yeltsin in the '90s.
Employing that simplistic, absurdly overused American template that dismisses everything short of firmness and confrontation as Munich-style appeasement, we did nothing to placate—not to appease, but to calm—the Russian jingoists who have taken over in Moscow. As Stephen Sestanovich, a former top Russia adviser in Democratic and Republican administrations, said to me a year ago: "There's no longer a sense that Russia is just on the other side of the divide but still within the family. The Russians are no longer the errant cousins. This is a totally different gang." It has turned into a gang that requires some practical realpolitk and, frankly, a degree of accomodation. The inevitable response to this argument that I will get from U.S. hard-liners—that Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites and republics were all simply choosing democracy and NATO on their own—doesn't really wash. When you're dealing with great powers, you have to make adjustments. After all, the Taiwanese have wanted self-determination for years, but U.S. policy has consistently been to restrain Taipei so as not to provoke Beijing. It's not a pretty solution—there's no "moral clarity" about it—but it has helped to keep the peace, and Taiwan has been left alone to develop into the flourishing democracy it has become.
So none of what's happening this week should be much of a surprise: ever since Putin rose to the presidency in 2000, promising to crush Chechnya's separatist Muslims—a pledge he carried out with ruthless dispatch—he has sought first to halt further disintegration of the former Soviet superpower's sphere of influence, and then to reverse the process. His efforts to unseat Viktor Yushchenko in the Ukraine back in 2004, using political subterfuge (and possibly poison) rather than armed force, failed. He seems to be trying to do the same against Saakashvili—exploiting the Georgian leader's foolhardy move into South Ossetia—with more aggressive methods, gambling (perhaps rightly) that America is too weak and distracted to do anything about it and that Europe too fractious and dependent on his energy supplies. Putin also knows that this revanchist approach is perhaps the main source of his enormous popularity in Russia. As former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin summed it up to me succinctly at the time of the Ukraine crisis: "Mikhail Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin destroyed communism. Putin is reinventing Russia."
Some Moscow experts have also suggested that Putin thought he had a tacit deal with his pal George W. Bush: we'll cooperate in the terror war and Iran; you leave our backyard alone. But if such an understanding existed (did Bush give Putin the kind of wink that FDR gave to Stalin at Yalta?), America didn't honor it. At the summit in Sochi in April, when Bush and Putin issued a strategic framework declaration, including steps to promote security, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, combat terrorism and advance economic cooperation, Bush still went ahead and championed the path to NATO for Georgia and Ukraine. And he ignored Russian fears about his missile-defense plans.
So, without forgiving Putin's aggression in Georgia this week, the question we should ask ourselves is: was the bid to bring Georgia into NATO a bridge too far for the West? By aggressively pushing into the former Soviet sphere almost without pause since the early '90s, did we provoke the Russians beyond the point of endurance? It's a question that must be asked, because despite the flurry of diplomatic moves in recent days it seems pretty clear that Bush and Co. can do little to force the Russians out of Georgia. The reverse humiliation the West may now suffer, and the dispiriting signals this is going to send throughout Eastern Europe, will have a profound impact if Russian troops continue their occupation.