How Georgia's Sakashvili Started a War with Russia Convinced US Had His Back

It turned out US wasn't quite ready for WW3 

  • 'Saakashvili demanded immediate shipment of various weapons systems, including, remembers Jackson, “a thousand Stingers.” Jackson said that would not happen. “Go fuck yourself,” snapped the Georgian leader.'
South Ossetia, 2008

This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in Harper's Magazine


“ ‘Fuck Russia’ is a proud and long tradition in U.S. foreign policy,” Jackson pointed out to me. “It doesn’t go away overnight.”

Consequently, no one in Washington appeared to care very much about the Russian reaction when NATO’s eastward flow began spilling into the territory of the former Soviet Union, especially once George W. Bush was in the White House with Dick Cheney by his side.

With the momentum of expansion carrying NATO ever closer to the Soviet heartland, it was no longer realistic to presume Russian indifference. Yet the movement was hard to stop.

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Even farther to the east, in Georgia, a charismatic young U.S.-trained lawyer, Mikheil Saakashvili, took power in 2003 and straightaway began offering a welcome embrace to Washington and pleading to join the alliance.

As I have previously described (in a post on the Harper’s website), to bolster his standing in the American capital, Saakashvili hired Randy Scheunemann, a Republican lobbyist and the executive director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a neocon group formed in 2002 under the chairmanship of none other than Bruce Jackson.

Privately, Washington players felt a little nervous about their hyperactive protégé, suspecting that he might get everyone into trouble. As one of them told me, Saakashvili “needed a course of Ritalin to shut him up.” But in public, it was easy to get swept away. In 2005, George W. Bush stood in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square and told the crowd they could count on American support:

As you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you. . . . As you build free institutions at home, the ties that bind our nations will grow deeper, as well. . . . We encourage your closer cooperation with NATO.

Saakashvili worked hard at ingratiating himself with the friendly superpower, supplying a Georgian contingent for the U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and offering hospitality to various American intelligence operations in Georgia itself, where NSA interception facilities began appearing on suitably sited hilltops.

Although he may have had less appeal among European leaders, in Washington the Georgian president basked in bipartisan favor among influential figures such as Richard Holbrooke, as well as White House aspirant Senator John McCain and his adviser (and Saakashvili lobbyist) Randy Scheunemann.

Unfortunately, the burgeoning relationship promoted a dangerous overconfidence on Saakashvili’s part.

By 2008, he was unabashedly provoking Moscow, apparently confident that he could win a war with his immense neighbor. Receiving Bruce Jackson, who by now was heading up yet another entity, the Project on Transitional Democracies, Saakashvili demanded immediate shipment of various weapons systems, including, remembers Jackson, “a thousand Stingers.” Jackson said that would not happen. “Go fuck yourself,” snapped the Georgian leader.

Matters came to a head at a NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008. Vladimir Putin flew in to say that the alliance’s expansion posed a “direct threat” to Russia.

President Bush, accompanied by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, took Saakashvili aside and told him not to provoke Russia. Sources privy to the meeting tell me that Bush warned the Georgian leader that if he persisted, the United States would not start World War III on his behalf.

Bush had arrived in Bucharest eager for an agreement on rapid NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, but he backed off in the face of protests from European leaders.

In an awkward compromise, NATO released a statement forswearing immediate membership, but also stating: “We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” Putin duly took note.

Buoyed by hubris and undeterred by warnings (possibly undermined by back-channel assurances from Dick Cheney that he had U.S. support for a confrontation), Saakashvili pressed on, ultimately assaulting the separatist region of South Ossetia, which was disputed by Russia.

Russian forces swiftly counterattacked and were soon deep in Georgian territory, making sure along the way to destroy all those U.S. listening posts.

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