A Little War that Shook the World:

Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West


By   Ronald D. Asmus







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Bush Aides Weighed Attack to Halt Russia-Georgia War


Review by James G. Neuger



Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) -- As Russian tanks rumbled into Georgia in 2008, a post-Cold War turning point was at hand.

George W. Bush’s national security team considered launching air strikes to halt the invasion. Vladimir Putin boasted that he alone could be trusted. And Nicolas Sarkozy badgered Georgia’s leader into signing a cease-fire.

These are just three peeks behind the diplomatic curtain presented in “A Little War That Shook the World,” Ronald D. Asmus’s absorbing account of the five-day clash in the Caucasus that August.

Asmus, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, now runs the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund. He pieced together this tale of realpolitik and diplomatic dead-ends by unearthing previously unpublished documents and interviewing Western and Georgian officials. Taken together, the evidence illustrates how the West failed to get to grips with an emboldened Russia.

Written with a diplomat’s feel for policy nuance and a journalist’s eye for detail, the book traces how Russia exploited U.S.-European divisions -- magnified by the festering sore of the Iraq war -- to put a stop to Georgia’s headstrong embrace of the West.

Thus we learn that “several senior White House staffers” urged “at least some consideration of limited military options,” such as bombing the mountain tunnel that served as Russia’s main supply line.

Bush Backs Off

Four days after the war started on Aug. 7, 2008, Bush cut off the discussion. A top-level White House meeting produced “a clear sense around the table that almost any military steps could lead to a confrontation with Moscow,” Asmus writes.

In the end, neither the lame-duck administration nor the fractured trans-Atlantic alliance could do much to save Georgia once it stumbled into war. The clash would renew Russia’s claim to great-power status after two decades of strategic decline.

Russian voices are largely absent in these pages; senior Kremlin officials rebuffed Asmus’s interview requests, he says. The resulting account is more sympathetic to Georgia than, for example, a European Union-sponsored investigation that last year blamed Georgia for firing the first shots.

The fin-de-regne Bush comes across as chastened into pragmatism, unwilling to pick a fight with Russia and unable to charm allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel into backing North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership for Georgia.

‘Stark and Threatening’

Late-term tensions between Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney punctuate this story. Cheney’s office grew concerned that Bush inadvertently gave Russia the all-clear to attack by staying mute in response to Putin’s “stark and threatening language” about Georgia during a meeting between the two men in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in April 2008. One Cheney staffer, reading a memo of that encounter, fretted that Bush might have given Russia a “green light.”

“A Little War” eavesdrops on a telling conversation Putin had with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the architect of Georgia’s pro-western policies, in February 2008.

“You think you can trust the Americans, and they will rush to assist you?” Putin asked according to a Georgian record of the talk. “Nobody can be trusted! Except me.”

Georgian ‘Hothead’

Saakashvili, seen as a reformer by some, a demagogue by others, was central to the non-meeting of minds between the U.S. and Europe over how to bring Georgia closer to the West. In European capitals he was seen as “an American-backed hothead who spelled trouble,” Asmus writes.

Trouble was preprogrammed when the equally histrionic Sarkozy shuttled between Moscow and the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to negotiate a ceasefire. The choice of the French leader, in his role as holder of the EU presidency, reflected concern in Washington that high-profile U.S. involvement would further rile the Kremlin.

Asmus’s account of Sarkozy’s seat-of-the-pantalons diplomacy includes the insight that at least one senior U.S. official was “appalled” by the ambiguous ceasefire text improvised by the French leader in Moscow on Aug. 12.

Later that evening, with 100,000 Georgians happily chanting “Sar-ko-zy, Sar-ko-zy” outside the parliament in Tbilisi, the French president confronted Saakashvili with the document and told him that he wouldn’t get a better deal.

“Where is Bush? Where are the Americans?” Sarkozy is quoted as snarling at the Georgians. “They are not coming to save you. No Europeans are coming, either. You are alone. If you don’t sign, the Russian tanks will be here soon.”

“A Little War That Shook the World: Georgia, Russia and the Future of the West” is published by Palgrave Macmillan (254 pages, $27, 20 pounds).

(James G. Neuger writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Originally published at:  http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=anp.wBWKJBGY

To contact the reporter on this story: James G. Neuger in Brussels at jneuger@bloomberg.net