President George W. Bush, who was committed to improving U.S.-Russian ties after he met President Vladimir Putin and got “a sense of his soul,” was forced to confront Russia as it invaded Georgia 10 years ago this week. President Barack Obama also attempted to “reset” ties with Russia, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 required him as well to address Russian aggression. The intentions of both U.S. presidents to improve U.S.-Russian ties were ultimately dashed by Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and willingness to go to war to block the Western integration of its neighbors.
Putin believes that attempts to hold Russia accountable are flagging and will ultimately fail. The West’s challenge is to prove him wrong — a task complicated by President Donald Trump’s pursuit of his own unique “reset” with Moscow that involves fueling trans-Atlantic differences on Russia. It’s not at all clear Trump is interested in learning from the past. But if he is, here are five lessons that could help prevent a third, and possibly worse, war.
Don’t underestimate Russian ambitions
►Prepare for both conventional and unconventional Russian maneuvers, no matter how unlikely they appear. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war surprised many U.S. officials and left the U.S. government reeling. It should not have. The fall of the Soviet Union had lulled the U.S. into a belief in Russian self-limitation, and the West fell victim to a lack of imagination. Officials in the Defense Department were warned of the need to conduct higher level contingency planning months before the crisis, to no avail. Despite the warning lights flashing in Georgia for months, including Russian railway troop movements inside Abkhazia in May 2008, the administration was unprepared to respond in August to a war in the South Caucasus.
►Western divisions can suggest to Russia that it has an opportunity for aggression with impunity. Western division over Georgia — on display at the Bucharest NATO Summit in April 2008, when the U.S. and Germany squared off about whether to offer a Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine — may have contributed to Putin’s conclusion that he could attack Georgia without consequence. The Bucharest Summit settled on compromise language that Georgia and Ukraine would one day become NATO members, but this forward-looking objective on top of public differences over a first step toward NATO may have infuriated Putin while also signaling Western ambivalence.
►Western and U.S. counter-pressure during a conflict can limit Russian aggression. Russian military forces turned back from Tbilisi, partially because of late but effective U.S. resolve that included flying Georgian soldiers directly back to Georgia from Iraq, despite Russian warnings. This demonstrated Bush’s determination that the U.S. would not stand idle as Russia tried to destroy Georgia. Ukrainians resisted Russian attacks in the Donbas, and the West, led by President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, imposed sanctions on Russia. In both cases, partly in response to this counter-pressure, the Russians stopped their military advance but held on to their gains.
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►The wider American interest to improve U.S.-Russia ties sidelined attempts to build a concerted and lasting international response to the 2008 war. The Obama administration “reset” with Russia, which sought to use an improvement in U.S.-Russian ties to achieve American aims in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and on nuclear arms limitations, ended what was a limited array of isolation measures engineered against Moscow after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. The “reset” suggested that the West’s collective memory was short, and that Americans would overlook Russian aggression by prioritizing pursuing shared interests with Moscow. The Obama administration deliberately kept its distance from Georgia, limiting relations, including arms sales, suggesting to Moscow that its war against Georgia didn’t count in the larger context of U.S.-Russia relations.
►As confirmed in the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia will allow its former Soviet neighbors to exercise some domestic autonomy but bound to the Russian yoke. Some in the West are attracted to a frank sphere-of-influence division of the world, seeing it as inevitable, even stabilizing. But such arrangements are not stabilizing. Nations consigned to a Russian sphere of influence will, in practice, live in poorer and more corrupt conditions than they would in a closer association with the West. Should countries try to escape Russian control, as the Georgians and Ukrainians discovered in their respective pro-Western “Rose Revolution” and “Revolution of Dignity,” they are subject to punishment or invasion.
Trump must scrap benign view of Russia
We learned hard lessons about Russia 10 years ago. We must keep our eyes open; think about “unthinkable” options; convey Western unity; prepare plans of resistance and convey willingness to use them; not hastily seek a return to “normal” after Russian aggression; and remember the strategic challenge Russia poses through its assertion of a sphere of domination.
Many in the Trump administration appear aware of these lessons and some of the Trump administration’s policies seem consistent with them — for instance, maintaining and even intensifying sanctions, selling advanced anti-armor weapons to Georgia and Ukraine and continuing NATO military deployments to the more vulnerable countries on its eastern and northeastern flank.
However, Trump often seems to move in the opposite direction: clinging to benign views of Russia’s intentions; rhetorically trashing the Western alliance; and flirting with a nationalist view of international relations, rooted in might-makes-right norms of behavior. Putin’s calculations, based on assessment of U.S. intentions, could again turn in an aggressive direction. Two Russian wars against its neighbors in the past decade could therefore be followed by a third. On the tenth anniversary of the Russo-Georgian War, this is a bad place to for the U.S. to be.
Daniel Fried, a distinguished senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center, is a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. Mark Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, was Russia policy director at the Defense Department during the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and a Pentagon adviser during Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.