Russia Rising: The Georgian Crisis & U.S. Foreign Policy

By Holloway, David | Commonweal, September 12, 2008 | Go to article overview

Russia Rising: The Georgian Crisis & U.S. Foreign Policy


Holloway, David, Commonweal


The ongoing crisis in Georgia has catapulted relations with Russia to a top place on the foreign-policy agenda. It has presented the United States--and the West more generally--with important policy decisions, and it has brought to a head a debate that has been taking place for many years about how to deal with Russia. One side in that debate believes that post-Communist Russia has taken the wrong path of development and should therefore be isolated and punished; the other advocates a continuing search for cooperation with Russia on a range of important issues such as nuclear disarmament, global warming, energy, and Iran's nuclear ambitions. The crisis in Georgia has clearly strengthened those who want to isolate Russia; it is not so clear, however, that that would be a wise policy.

It now seems unlikely that anyone will benefit from the war in Georgia. Georgia has been humiliated and its prospects for economic and political development have been seriously set back. Russia has acted brutally as a great power bullying a small neighbor, and its relations with other states will suffer as a result (the speedy signing of the U.S.-Polish agreement on missile defense is an indication of that). The strong rhetoric coming from Washington cannot hide the U.S. failure to prevent Russia's intervention in Georgia and its inability to come directly to the aid of a state that looks to it for support.

The Georgian crisis requires a reassessment of U.S. policy toward Russia. To put that in context, consider the enormous upheaval Russia has gone through in the past twenty years. The Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991, creating fifteen new states where previously there had been one. This geopolitical transformation, which took place with far less loss of life than many feared, was for Russians a severe blow to their sense of national pride, and it left some simmering disputes, especially in the Caucasus, not only in Georgia but also within Russia (Chechnya), as well as in neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan.

At home, too, Russia has been transformed. The 1990s were a period of political freedom in Russia, but they also brought economic collapse and social turmoil, with widespread deprivation and great anxiety about the future. When the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, he adopted the goal of restoring the power of the Russian state. He tamed the oligarchs and increased state control over the economy. He also curbed the mass media and repressed political opposition. Russia today is far from being the democracy that many people hoped for ten or fifteen years ago, but it is also far from being a reincarnation of the Soviet Union. It now has a capitalist economy, and there is much greater freedom than in Soviet times.

Putin has been a popular leader, thanks in large measure to the economic turnaround that has taken place since he became president. The economy has grown steadily, at rates of 6-7 percent a year, and much of the population has benefited--even if the benefits have been very unequally distributed. The rising price of oil helps to account for this growth, but economic reforms put in place by Yeltsin and Putin have played their role too. Economic growth has allowed Russia to reassert its regional interests and its status as a great power.

Many Americans have been greatly disappointed by Russia's development over the past twenty years: Why, they ask, has Russia not become a democratic state? And why has it become so antagonistic to the United States--opposing the deployment of missile defenses in Europe, for example, and now sending its troops into Georgia?

Russians, too, are disillusioned by recent history, but for different reasons. Many Russians are willing to give Putin some credit not only for raising living standards but also for introducing a degree of stability into political life. According to the same polls, however, they are also profoundly unhappy about the level of corruption, the arbitrary behavior of law-enforcement agencies, and the failure of the government to provide services in an efficient and effective manner. …

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