Cheney Marches to Georgia

On a visit to Tiblisi, Georgia on Thursday, Vice Preisdent Dick Cheney gave the administration’s most aggressive push-back against recent Russian moves to regain regional dominance.

Cheney’s proclamation that “Russia’s actions have cast grave doubt on Russia’s intentions and on its reliability as an international partner, not just in Georgia but across this region and indeed across the international system” is a direct response not only to the recent conflict in Georgia but also to Russia’s current foreign policy.

Quoting from a Stratfor article on the subject, here is that policy as laid out by Russian Present Medvedev just a few days ago:

— First, Russia recognizes the primacy of the fundamental principles of international law, which define the relations between civilized peoples. We will build our relations with other countries within the framework of these principles and this concept of international law.

— Second, the world should be multipolar. A single-pole world is unacceptable. Domination is something we cannot allow. We cannot accept a world order in which one country makes all the decisions, even as serious and influential a country as the United States of America. Such a world is unstable and threatened by conflict.

— Third, Russia does not want confrontation with any other country. Russia has no intention of isolating itself. We will develop friendly relations with Europe, the United States, and other countries, as much as is possible.

— Fourth, protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they may be, is an unquestionable priority for our country. Our foreign policy decisions will be based on this need. We will also protect the interests of our business community abroad. It should be clear to all that we will respond to any aggressive acts committed against us.

— Finally, fifth, as is the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests. These regions are home to countries with which we share special historical relations and are bound together as friends and good neighbors. We will pay particular attention to our work in these regions and build friendly ties with these countries, our close neighbors.

This is, to put it plainly, the declaration of the Second Cold War.  Russia is embodened by its not altogether incorrect perception that the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there’s more to it than just the current deployment of our military: The Russians can cause a lot of trouble for us elsewhere in the world, such as by selling weapons to Syria or Iran or by financially or otherwise supporting anti-U.S. governments in our own hemisphere, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua (which on Tuesday became the second nation to recognize Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent entities). For all these reasons, they believe that the U.S. will not be able to stop Russian expansion.

Russia also doesn’t have much to fear from Western Europe.  When sanctions were proposed, the French Foreign Minister made it clear that it’s hard to impose sanctions on the people who are supplying the energy that much of Europe needs to heat their homes.

Still, Vice President Cheney is being as aggressive , reiterating not only $1 billion of aid to help Georgia rebuild and resettle people displaced by the five-day war, but also America’s view that “As the current members of NATO declared at a summit in Bucharest (in April), Georgia will be in our alliance.”

It is a bold play by Cheney, and one wonders whether he knows he has the votes within NATO to back it up now that adding Georgia to the alliance would make NATO obligated to defend a country that Russia has just shown it is willing to attack. Indeed, if Georgia’s NATO membership ambitions are ended, Cheney’s gambit has real risks. As Strafor notes, “Simply showing up and making assurances will decrease American credibility, not increase it.”  In fact, their note written before Cheney’s visit presumed that Cheney “can’t offer NATO membership, as it would be vetoed by some European countries.”

The fact that Cheney is being more aggressive than experts thought he could be is almost certainly calculated to throw the Russians off-balance, to make them wonder whether they’ve overestimated the American distraction and underestimated our resolve.

Cheney is also sticking a thumb in Medvedev’s eye by strongly standing by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili despite the Russian’s calling him a “walking corpse” (politically speaking, I’m sure).

Other former Soviet republics have reason to be afraid of a resurgent chest-pounding Russia. Cheney’s other two stops on this trip are to two of those countries: Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Cheney met with the Azeri President who requested “strengthening of security measures” and discussed “additional routes for energy exports that ensure the free flow of resources.”  Again, a very aggressive threat to one of Russia’s main levers on Western Europe.

While there may be a legitimate debate about who started the war in Georgia, the administration (as well as John McCain) is pointing the finger directly at Russia regarding responsibility for the massive damage and loss of life.  Cheney’s words to this effect could hardly have been stronger: “As you work to overcome an invasion of your sovereign territory and an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change your country’s borders by force, that has been universally condemned by the free world. Now it is the responsibility of the free world to rally to the side of Georgia."

It is not just words that the U.S. is showing to Medvedev and Putin right now: The U.S. is delivering 17 tons of humanitarian aid to Georgia on the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet flagship, the USS Mount Whitney, and has also used a Coast Guard cutter (Dallas) and a destroyer (USS McFaul) for such deliveries.  The message is clear: We take our alliance with Georgia with the utmost seriousness.

But it remains to be seen whether the United States can create the leverage against Russia needed to back them off from their current aggressiveness.  

Is Cheney bluffing? Is Russia willing to risk calling that possible bluff to find out?  And what are the implications for regions from Eastern Europe to Iraq to Central America based on those answers?  But while all eyes are on political conventions first and Iraq second, we must not underestimate the potentially enormous significance of the message that Vice President Cheney is delivering to Russia as well as to Georgia and other nations whose path to democracy and capitalism has been based in large part on a belief that they had a good and true friend in the United States of America.