by Robert G. Gard and John Isaacs
The first rule of physicians is “Do No Harm.” The first rule of a nation’s reprisals should be “Do No Harm to Yourself.” Yet in the wake of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, both the United States and Russia are considering reckless steps aimed at the other country that could be startlingly self-destructive.
Some examples could include the failure of the international space station, a halt to the highly successful American program to dismantle and safeguard Russian nuclear weapons and materials and an end to cooperation in confronting international terrorism.
Despite their diametrically different views of the world, there is a need for both countries to make wise and measured decisions from this point forward. There is too much at stake for both countries to let retaliation begat retaliation in ways that threaten the interests of both countries. There are too many areas where mutual cooperation is in the interests of both sides.
- It is 2011, and the $100 billion international space station funded largely by the United States begins to turn into space junk. After the Russian-Georgia conflict, Congress refused in 2008 to provide permission for NASA to pay Russia’s space agency to deliver astronauts and supplies to the space station. The earliest date for a U.S. replacement vehicle for the space shuttle is 2015. Without people on board at all times, the space station has degraded and could burn up in the earth’s atmosphere.
- With the U.S. and Russia in a snit over each other’s actions, the highly successful American program to dismantle and safeguard Russian nuclear weapons and materials was brought to an abrupt halt. There has been a sharp increase in the risk of a Russian nuclear weapon or its fissionable materials falling into the hands of terrorists out to incinerate an American city.
- Cooperation between Russia and the U.S. to combat international terrorism that threatens both countries grind to a halt after a series of tit for tat acts following Russia’s overwhelming use of force in Georgia.
The first rule of physicians is “Do No Harm.”
The first rule of a nation’s reprisals should be “Do No Harm to Yourself.”
Yet both the United States and Russia are considering reckless steps aimed at the other country that could be startlingly self-destructive.
CONFLICT IN GEORGIA
While the Russians blame the Georgians for their brief war and the Georgians blame the Russians, it is in fact clear that both sides are at fault – with some blame leftover for the United States.
As Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times on August 20, 2008:
“If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams.”
With the Russians itching for a fight and provocations coming from both sides, it was Saakashvili who shot the starter gun when he launched an artillery barrage against Tskhinvali and tried to occupy South Ossetia. The Georgian leader, educated in the United States and a favorite of American politicians, has been repeatedly warned against taking the Russian bait but instead fell into a Bear trap.
His forces were quickly overwhelmed by Russian power, which declined to stop at the borders of the disputed territories and instead invaded sovereign Georgia with brute force and scant regard for civilian life or human rights. While it signed a cease fire accord, Russia acted slowly to live up to the terms of the agreement and exploited loopholes to continue to occupy Georgian territory.
There is too long a history of unrest and quarrels in that part of the world to outline here. But it is clear what the people in the disputed territories think of Georgians and Georgians think of Russia: hate is probably not too strong a word for both sets of attitudes.
WALKING IN YOUR OPPONENT’S MOCCASINS
There is an old American Indian expression that everyone should walk in his opponents’ moccasins. That is, to understand your own position, you need to understand your opponents’.
Most Americans have difficulty with this proposition. We tend to see the world as a battle between good and evil, with good generally being on our side. We fail even to attempt to understand the other side’s motivations for its actions.
This dictum is all too true with Russia.
We see Vladimer Putin’s choking of dissent at home, crushing free media and his use of petro-power to assert Russian power abroad. We see his resort to force in Georgia bringing back memories of Soviet repression and his crude threats to his neighbors. We see his intent to eliminate from power Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
But we should also view the world as perceived from Moscow:
- When the Soviet Union acceded peacefully to a reunified Germany anchored in NATO and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was promised by the first President Bush through his Secretary of State, James Baker, that NATO would not expand eastward. Instead, under U.S. leadership, NATO first expanded to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and then on to many more former Soviet bloc countries, including the Baltic countries on Russia’s border. More recently, the U.S. supported adding Georgia and Ukraine to NATO.
- To Russia, NATO expansion was not only a broken promise but the transformation of an anti-Soviet alliance into an anti-Russian alliance right up to Russia’s borders. The Americans were confident that Moscow was too weak to respond and that it had better get used to the new world situation. A weak Russia could not initially respond; but a resurgent Putin fueled with oil and natural gas dollars can.
- The U.S. plunked down military bases in a number of the former Soviet territories and pledged to place missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. An agreement with Poland to accept a new missile defense system ostensibly aimed at Iran was rushed to completion in the aftermath of the Georgian conflict – only fueling Russian fears about whom the system is aimed against. A Russian equivalent would be to place bases and missiles in Cuba and Mexico and see what the U.S. reaction would be.
- Contrary to consistently opposing border changes, the United States recognized the independence of Kosovo from Russian ally Serbia over vehement objections in Moscow, nervous over its own ethnic separatist movements. Less than a quarter of the world’s countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence. To Moscow, its incorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is legitimate payback.
- Russia viewed the increasingly close ties between Georgia, a country on its border, and the United States as an affront. Georgia placed 2,000 troops in Iraq, one of the largest foreign contingents in that country. The U.S. held a military exercise in Georgia with more than 1,000 American troops just a month before the conflict. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice loudly proclaimed their support for the Georgian position on the disputed territories.
THE NEED FOR U.S. AND RUSSIA TO WORK TOGETHER
Despite their diametrically different views of the world, there is a need for both countries to make wise and measured decisions from this point forward. There is too much at stake for both countries to let retaliation begat retaliation in ways that threaten the interests of both countries.
The United States should pursue the pullback of Russian forces to international borders, the insertion of international peacekeepers into the region and humanitarian assistance to help those who were hurt in the fighting.
But at the same time, the United States and Russia should pursue mutual cooperation in areas of interest to both sides:
- Safeguarding and dismantling of nuclear weapons and materials;
- Negotiating abandonment of any nuclear weapons aspirations of Iran;
- Dismantling North Korean nuclear weapons and programs;
- Fighting against international terrorists;
- Combatting global climate change;
- Extending nuclear weapons treaties limiting nuclear stockpiles and provide verification mechanisms that expire in 2009;
- Keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan;
- Cooperating on the international space station;
- Agreeing on Civilian Nuclear Cooperation between Russia and the U.S.;
- Retaining the treaties on Conventional Forces in Europe and Intermediate Nuclear Forces.
- Cooperating in the search for a Middle East peace agreement; and
- Dealing with short supplies of oil and natural gas and avoiding energy manipulation.
To paraphrase an old saying, we may not be able to live with a resurgent and over-reacting Russia but we also cannot live without it.
Resorting to old Cold War rhetoric and ratcheting up retaliatory efforts can only undermine these interests which are important to both sides. Too many old Cold Warriors have jumped into their suits of armor from two decades ago.
Instead, wise leadership should establish clear limits to Russian actions while acting to tie Russia more closely into a democratic and open market system. Just as the United States worked hard to bring the former Soviet satellites into the family of free and democratic nations, so we should pursue that ultimate aim with Russia.
But even if we are stymied in what indeed will be a huge endeavor, we must cooperate on issues in which we both have important interests at stake. The U.S. must engage Russia rather than treating it as an enemy or a weak nation to be isolated and punished. Our motto should be: “Do No Harm to Yourself.”