POLITICO Magazine

George W. Bush Was Tough on Russia? Give Me a Break.

As the Obama administration copes with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing pressure on Ukraine, its actions invariably invite comparison to the Bush administration’s response to the 2008 Georgian-Russian war. But as the Obama White House readies potentially more potent economic sanctions against Russia, former Bush administration officials are bandying a revisionist history of the Georgia conflict that suggests a far more robust American response than there actually was.

Neither White House had good options for influencing Russian President Vladimir Putin. And this time, the fast-moving developments on the ground in Ukraine confront the United States with tough choices. Because the West will not go to war over Crimea, U.S. and European officials must rely on political, diplomatic and financial measures to punish Moscow, while seeking to launch negotiations involving Russia in order to de-escalate and ultimately stabilize the Ukraine situation. They are not having an easy time of it.

Neither did the Bush administration during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. In a brief, five-day conflict, the Russian army routed its outnumbered and outgunned Georgian opponent and advanced to within a short drive of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Bush officials ruled out military options and found that, given the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations over the previous five years, they had few good levers to influence the Kremlin. The sanctions Washington applied at the time had little resonance in Moscow.

In recent days, however, former Bush administration officials have described a forceful and effective U.S. response in Georgia. On “Fox News Sunday” on March 16, former senior White House adviser Karl Rove told Chris Wallace, “What the United States did was it sent warships to, to the Black Sea, it took the combat troops that Georgia had in Afghanistan, and airlifted them back, sending a very strong message to Putin that ‘you’re going to be facing combat-trained, combat-experienced Georgian forces.’ And not only that, but the United States government is willing to give logistical support to get them there, and this stopped them.”

Rove was echoing what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in a March 7 op-ed in The Washington Post: “After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the United States sent ships into the Black Sea, airlifted Georgian military forces from Iraq back to their home bases and sent humanitarian aid. Russia was denied its ultimate goal of overthrowing the democratically elected government.” Really? These statements do not match well with the history of the conflict.

War broke out the night of Aug. 7, when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili ordered his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, after Russian forces shelled Georgian villages just outside South Ossetia. The Russians — by appearances, spoiling for a fight — responded swiftly with massive force. They turned the Georgian army back and overran much of Georgia.

As has been widelyreported, when the conflict began, one of Georgia’s five army brigades was serving as part of the coalition force in Iraq (not Afghanistan, as Rove claimed). On Aug. 10, U.S. C-17s began returning the brigade to Tbilisi, and it promptly went into combat.

The brigade was well-trained and experienced — but in counterinsurgency operations for Iraq, not combined arms operations. Facing a larger and far better-armed opponent, the brigade added little to the failing Georgian effort to halt the Russian advance. On Aug. 12, Moscow announced a cease-fire. French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled to the Russian and Georgian capitals to formalize an end to the hostilities.

Did the U.S. airlift of the Georgian troops to Tbilisi change the tide of battle or Moscow’s political calculations? No. The Russian army handily drove them back.

What about the deployment of U.S. Navy ships to the Black Sea? The guided missile destroyer USS McFaul did enter the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian supplies to Georgia, passing through the Bosporus on Aug. 22 — 10 days after the cease-fire.

No evidence suggests these actions had much, if any, impact on Putin’s decision making. The Russians halted their offensive short of Tbilisi, figuring that occupying the capital was unnecessary. They thought — as did many in Georgia and the West — that the political shock of the rout would suffice to bring down Saakashvili’s government (though, in the end, it did not).

U.S. C-17s did fly humanitarian supplies to Tbilisi, but President Bush ruled out military action. His administration imposed modest penalties on Russia, ratcheting down bilateral relations, freezing a U.S.-Russia civil nuclear cooperation agreement and ending support for Moscow’s bid to join the World Trade Organization. U.S. officials found that they had little leverage to affect Moscow’s behavior.

The Obama administration has applied similar measures as it seeks to sway Putin again, but it has added a new penalty: visa and financial sanctions targeted at individual Russians, including some close to Putin. On March 20, the president also announced a new executive order to enable U.S. sanctions against key sectors of the Russian economy, including finance, energy and defense — the kinds of tough penalties that the United States has not previously applied against Moscow.

Despite the bluster of former Bush administration officials today, Washington in fact has a stronger hand in the current crisis in Ukraine in one other regard. In 2008, many European states held Saakashvili partially responsible for triggering the war with the Georgian advance into South Ossetia. Ukraine, by contrast, has acted with great restraint. This time, nearly all of Europe agrees that Russia’s actions are out of bounds. Sure enough, European states also appear more ready to sanction Russia than in 2008. Along with the various sanctions the U.S. alone has announced, European Union officials last week also announced visa and financial sanctions on individual Russians.

These moves might not end up shaking Putin from his course, but applying the new executive order could inflict real pain on the Russian economy — something Washington did not accomplish in 2008. Those who faced the challenge of punishing Russia over Georgia should understand the complexities of dealing with Putin and, at a minimum, cut the current administration a little slack.

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