Vice President Cheney’s recent reminder that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had agreed to admit Georgia ought to get our attention. The Vice President’s statement must be seen in light of five important and overlapping developments: (1) the “new containment” policy of the United State against Russia; (2) plans to deploy regional ballistic missile defense systems on the Russian periphery; (3) post-Cold War US-Russian-Georgian relations; (4) the eastward expansion of NATO; and (5) Georgia’s importance in oil and gas pipeline geopolitics. This essay examines developments one through four.
The core idea of both the old and the new containment policies is to surround the Soviet Union/Russia with US bases, forces and alliances to prevent its territorial expansion. Containment was the centerpiece of US security policy against the Soviets during the Cold War. The end of the Cold War in 1991 did not result in a corresponding update of US doctrine. Instead, given the break-up of the USSR and the multiplication of new nation-states around its edges, containment could be applied more extensively post-1991 than ever before. The Russian leadership is no more favorably disposed towards encirclement than had been the Soviet leadership. Ideology is not the decisive factor here.
Ronald Reagan’s ballistic missile defense program, known popularly as “Star Wars,” lives on today. The Pentagon spent tens of billions of dollars since the President’s 1983 speech launching the program in ongoing and generally unsuccessful attempts to ‘hit a bullet with a bullet.’ The US offered scaled-down land-based versions of some of the systems to a number of US allies including Poland (Patriot missiles) and the Czech Republic (the accompanying radar). Defended as necessary to protect allies from “rogue state” missile attacks in the post 9/11 period (Iran), Russia sees any deployment near its own borders as threatening to its nuclear missile forces. Wavering for several years, the Poles inked the deal shortly after the Russian drive into South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, US policy under President George H.W. Bush considered territorial disputes in the Transcaucasus (including Georgia) as internal Russian matters. The early nineties were a time of chaos in Georgia including a fierce civil war, a coup, and various ethnic conflicts. The World Bank, IMF, and Germany provided Georgia hundreds of millions of dollars in credits in 1995. The “Rose Revolution” that toppled illegitimate President Shevardnadze took place in 2003. Russian President Putin exclaimed following the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine—inspired by the Rose Revolution in Georgia—that it was “extremely dangerous to solve political problems outside the framework of the law.” Current President Saakashvili took office in 2004. President George W. Bush became the first sitting US president to visit Georgia in 2005.
In addition to its application to join NATO, Georgia began the lengthy process to become a member of the European Union. These closer relations with the West clearly worried Moscow. Russia embargoed Georgian wines and mineral water—leading exports–for alleged contamination in 2006. Sabotage against a transmission tower and a crucial gas pipeline in Russia near the Georgian border in January of that same year led the Georgians to claim Russia wanted to takeover its pipelines. An espionage scandal (Georgia ejected several Russians), a resultant crackdown on “undocumented” Georgians in Moscow, US diplomatic and military support for Georgia (including in the United Nations Security Council), and provocative speeches by both sides led to a further deterioration of relations. Georgia left the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on August 12 of this year.
Some observers thought NATO had outlived its usefulness following the collapse of the USSR, and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The Soviets concurred with the “enlargement” of NATO that took part with German reunification in 1990 but demanded and received assurances that no NATO forces would be based in the eastern part of the country. By the mid-nineties NATO had taken its first-ever military action in the former Yugoslavia (without UN approval and with Russian disapproval), and reached out to prospective new members to the east. By 1999, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland formally joined the Alliance in the face of bitter Russian complaints.
After 9/11, NATO invoked its Article 5—an attack against one is an attack against all—to, among other things, patrol the seas looking for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. NATO has played a major role in Afghanistan since 2003. By 2004, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), and Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania were members. At the NATO summit in April 2008, Albania and Croatia began the accession process. Agreed as well at that summit: Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO.” Other future members may include Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
The benefits of NATO membership include hundreds of thousands of troops, thousands of tanks and aircraft, and hundreds of warships at the ready for members’ collective defense. Backing up those conventional forces is the greatest nuclear weapons force on the planet: thousands of US, British, and perhaps French missiles and bombs. The Alliance promises ultimately to use nuclear weapons in defense of its member-states, even if the attack on members is non-nuclear.
The threat to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict is the cornerstone of NATO defense doctrine. First use supporters argued during the 1980s that the threat was necessary to offset what they considered the Warsaw Pact’s advantage in conventional forces. NATO councils rejected no-first-use (NFU) offers from the former Soviet Union, and NFU proposals by retired policymakers (e.g., Robert McNamara). Neither the fall of the Berlin Wall nor the collapse of the Soviet Union changed NATO first-use policy. It exists today, and thus extends to any future members of the Alliance, including Georgia.
Ought Washington to risk nuclear war with Russia on behalf of Tbilisi? No public opinion poll data on this question exists as of yet. However, we can imagine that should the question arise in a debate or press conference, the candidate who answers “yes” might cause some voters (and perhaps the media) to sit up, take notice, and ask additional questions.
STEVE BREYMAN is author of Why Movements Matter: The West German Peace Movement and US Arms Control Policy.