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Published: Wednesday, 8/13/2008

U.S. misconceptions set the scene for war in the Caucasus

THE EVENTS of the past week involving Russia, Georgia, and the United States have left U.S.-Russian relations in a state most comparable to those during the Cold War.

That lamentable state of affairs is a direct result of U.S. misunderstanding and resulting mishandling of Russia and the relationship.

The first catastrophic, unforgivable mistake was an underestimation of Russian pride, evident to anyone who had paid attention since the time of Peter the Great.

The second was a misunderstanding of why the Soviet Union fell. It was economic - the Soviet empire had overreached itself. By the way, it wasn't because President Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev in a sound bite to "tear down this wall."

The third catastrophic miscalculation was not to realize that based on its very substantial oil resources, Russia would be coming back as a world power as its financial resources once more began to match its aspirations and view of itself.

The administration of George H. W. Bush more or less got the pride piece and didn't crow much when the USSR dissolved. The Clinton administration either got it or didn't care enough to try to engage with the dissolved, fragmented former Evil Empire.

The ideologically driven George W. Bush Administration really didn't get it. And it should have, with Condoleezza Rice, a Soviet scholar, first as Mr. Bush's national security adviser and then as secretary of state. They didn't get the pride piece. Instead of grasping the economic reason for the collapse, they drank the Kool-Aid and began babbling about freedom and democracy coming to the former Soviet Union.

And can anyone imagine that Vladimir Putin would like to be patronized by Mr. Bush as a nice guy? Russian leaders do not like to be painted as soulful. Think of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Josef Stalin (a Georgian, by the way), and Boris Yeltsin as examples of Russian leaders. And, with no apparent understanding of the first two points, our leaders didn't act as if they realized what Russia's soaring wealth would lead to.

So here we are. How to understand the Georgia-South Ossetia mess? Let's look at it in American historical terms.

Roll the clock back to 1864. The North, tired of the Civil War because of its cost, the growing toll of casualties, and Copperhead rioting throws Abraham Lincoln out at the polls and elects his opponent, Gen. George McClellan, as president. (McClellan actually lost by 406,000 votes.)

McClellan cuts a deal with fellow West Pointer Gen. Robert E. Lee, ends the fighting, and lets the South walk. It splits into separate states, European governments recognize them, and quickly establish good working relations with them based on trade, religion, and culture.

There are residual problems. One of these is western Virginia. Virginia's northwestern counties go with the Union but some of its western counties, divided between plantation culture types and small farmers in the mountains, aren't so sure about their loyalty to Richmond.

The Richmond government, supported by its European allies, who provide it with arms, wants to consolidate its authority in the western counties. The North harbors a desire to add these counties to West Virginia as part of the Union.

The industrial North, recovered from the war and booming, flush with cash, believes it is still much more than a match for the South. And doesn't hesitate to say so. And really doesn't like the Europeans helping the South. (It never did.)

So Virginia, with European arms and military advisers, sends troops into western Virginia to put down separatists thinking about joining West Virginia and the Union. The North sends in forces to save the Western Virginia separatists from Virginian forces. Richmond asks the Europeans for help in the form of arms and more "advisers" and a scrap over western Virginia starts to become a much broader European-American conflict, which might also relaunch the Civil War.

If you are confused and want to replay this scenario, the North is Russia, the Europeans are the United States, Virginia is Georgia, the western Virginians are South Ossetia, and West Virginia is North Ossetia. Nobody said the Caucasus was easy but it is comprehensible.

So what should happen now?

First, the United States should stay out. Its policy toward Russia is based on a string of misconceptions, a poor basis for action. In particular, it should give Georgia no further military aid, neither weapons, trainers, nor advisers. The Georgians went into South Ossetia on their own, even if Mr. Bush and the Pentagon encouraged them to believe the United States would save them if the Russians played rough with them.

Second, the whole mess should be put in front of the United Nations. That's what that organization is for. Both Russia and Georgia are members. Surely a sufficiently anodyne Security Council resolution can be arrived at that will bring the conflict to an end.

Georgia needs to withdraw its troops from South Ossetia. So does Russia. And Abkhazia, Georgia's other dissident area, needs to be kept out of play by both the Georgian and Russian governments. It sounds like there may be a role for U.N. peacekeepers from a few carefully chosen countries - not the United States.

Could anyone be crazy enough to want to reopen the global Cold War? Or let it be reopened by a scrap in the over-fractious Caucasus?



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