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Debate Abounds on Russia’s Ambitions in Georgia Conflict

August 14, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Defense chief Robert Gates warned Russia Thursday to curb its military actions in Georgia while Moscow affirmed its support for the separatist enclaves there. Two analysts examine why Russia has engaged in the conflict.

JIM LEHRER: The U.S., Russia and Georgia story. We begin our coverage from the Georgian town of Gori. The correspondent is Julian Manyon of Independent Television News.

JULIAN MANYON: Sitting by the roadside in the no man’s land near Gori, a group of frightened refugees. They’ve been driven out of their villages by South Ossetian militiamen, following on the heels of the victorious Russian army.

Fifty-five-year-old Zina Archvadze told me how she fled her home.

GEORGIAN RESIDENT (through translator): We’ve been walking for five days to get out. We left everything behind. There was shooting, and they burned the houses. I’ve lost my son, and I don’t know where he is.

JULIAN MANYON: They came here from different villages, but all felt the same terror.

GEORGIAN RESIDENT (through translator): They were looting the houses, and then they started burning them. I’ve been walking since morning to get here, and I don’t know where I’ll go now.

JULIAN MANYON: The refugees began to move on. Nearby, members of the feared South Ossetian militia were exchanging angry words with Russian soldiers who were trying to prevent them from stealing a car.

The Russian army is now the only authority in this part of Georgia. This morning, they put heavy tanks on the road into Gori, dashing hopes that they might soon pull out of the town.

Russian tanks are now blocking the entrance to Gori. A short time ago, Georgian soldiers came here, and one of their officers asked the Russians to leave and allow them into town. The Russian response was direct and blunt: We’ll leave when we’re ready, when we get the orders, and not before.

A Russian colonel told me that his troops are ready to march on the capital, Tbilisi, if they get the order to do so. “If the Americans can take Baghdad,” he said, “we can take Tbilisi.”

At one point today, the Russians allowed a few Georgian police into Gori to conduct a symbolic joint patrol. But that arrangement appears to have broken down.

As armor rumbled past, a top Georgian official came to negotiate with the Russian commander. He wanted a promise that the Russians would soon leave, but he didn’t get it.

When is the Russian army going to leave Gori?

RUSSIAN SOLDIER (through translator): We need to stabilize the situation in this area, and that could take some time.

JULIAN MANYON: Back on the road to Tbilisi, the Georgians have now brought up many of their remaining troops, standing by in long lines of vehicles. But few believe that they would have any chance if the Russians decide to march on the capital.

Defense Secretary warns Russia

Robert Gates
Secretary of Defense
If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.

JIM LEHRER: At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Gates gave the administration's most detailed views of Russian goals in the Georgia operation. Here are excerpts.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: Starting last fall, Secretary Rice and I began what we hoped would be an ongoing and long-term strategic dialogue with the Russian Federation. The expectation was that our two nations, despite our differences, shared areas of common interest where we could work together as real partners.

Russia's behavior over the past week has called into question the entire premise of that dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward, both bilaterally and with NATO.

If Russia does not step back from its aggressive posture and actions in Georgia, the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come.

As you may know, we've cancelled our participation in a multinational naval exercise with Russia that was due to begin tomorrow. We've also canceled a U.S.-Canadian-Russian exercise, Vigilant Eagle, that was to have begun on Aug. 20.

In the days and weeks ahead, the Department of Defense will re-examine the entire gamut of our military-to-military activities with Russia and will make changes as necessary and appropriate, depending on Russian actions in the days ahead.

JOURNALIST: What is your assessment of their military prowess today? How have they performed over this recent offensive? And what are the implications not only for the region, but for the American military?

ROBERT GATES: Well, first of all, they clearly had a great advantage in having superior airpower and a lot of force that they were able to bring to bear.

My own view is that, you know, this -- it's a strange thing, but since 2004, every August, there has been an exchange of fire between South Ossetia -- South Ossetians and the Georgians. And this year, it escalated very quickly.

And it seemed to me that the Russians were prepared to take advantage of an opportunity -- and did so very aggressively -- that went far beyond just re-asserting the autonomy of Abkhazia and -- or their view of the autonomy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but to punish Georgia, and for more than just their part in the annual exchange of fire, but, rather, I think, to punish Georgia for daring to try to integrate with the West economically, and politically, and in security arrangements.

I think that the Russians' further message was to all of the parts of the former Soviet Union as a signal about trying to integrate with the West and move outside of the longtime Russian sphere of influence. So I think that they had an opportunity to make some very broad points, and I think they seized that opportunity.

JOURNALIST: What do you think the Russians' intentions are?

GATES: My view is that, that the Russians -- and I would say, principally, Prime Minister Putin -- is interested in re-asserting Russia's -- not only Russia's great power or superpower status, but in re-asserting Russia's traditional spheres of influence.

I think that there is an effort to try and redress what they regard as many of the concessions they feel were forced upon them in the 1990s, in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his talks with Secretary Rice and myself, he refers to the CFE treaty as the "colonial treaty."

And so I think that what we have seen, in the way that they have treated Western businesses and in -- and most recently in this, is to re-assert Russia's international status and, unfortunately, to do so in a negative way.

Understanding Russia's goals

Ariel Cohen
The Heritage Foundation
The Russians would like to see Mikheil Saakashvili go -- and actually they are trying to turn Saakashvili into the Slobodan Milosevic or Radovan Karadzic, Serb war criminal-type figure for the Caucasus, and put him in jail for a long time.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Russia's goals and ambitions, we get the views of two Russian-born Americans.

Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. And Anna Vassilieva is the head of the Russian Studies program at the Monterey, California, Institute of International Studies.

Welcome to both of you.

Ariel Cohen, what do you think Russia's ambitions and objectives are here?

ARIEL COHEN, The Heritage Foundation: Russia, first of all, wants to get the Georgians out of the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They succeeded to do that.

The Russians would like to see Mikheil Saakashvili go -- and actually they are trying to turn Saakashvili into the Slobodan Milosevic or Radovan Karadzic, Serb war criminal-type figure for the Caucasus, and put him in jail for a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: So they want to change Georgia's government?

ARIEL COHEN: They call it the regime change. Then, they would like to choke the artery of oil and gas that flow from the Caspian region to the west and control it. That will make Russia essentially the hegemon of energy for Europe.

Europe is already very dependent on Russian gas. One-third of European oil comes from Russia, 40 percent, in some cases, 99 percent of gas.

And then what they want to do is what Secretary Gates said, re-establish the old Soviet sphere of influence in what used to be the Soviet Union or, before that, the Russian empire. And we're seeing the return of the pattern, of the 400 years of Russian expansionism and imperialism which make all the Russian neighbors cringe.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Anna Vassilieva, that this is really a return to Russian expansionism and imperialism of a former era?

ANNA VASSILIEVA, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Well, we can interpret it that way, and this is what my colleague just did. However, there is another interpretation, and that interpretation was voiced a number of times by Russian leadership in the past few days.

The goal of the Russian action, military action in South Ossetia was to make sure that they protect Russian population that lives in South Ossetia and that it acted according to international law, defending its peacekeepers, and international obligations, under 1992 Dagomys treaty.

Russia sees this situation as very unfavorably interpreted. It sees itself and its citizens having been under attack and having responded in a military way -- and we can discuss whether it was a disproportionate response or not -- being the only legitimate action Russian government had to undertake.

So I would look at it in that very focused way of interpretation rather than bringing up to a very broad discussion about Russian imperial pasts and re-assertion of it in the world scene, and so on and so forth.

Georgia's territorial integrity

Anna Vassilieva
Monterey Institute of Int'l Studies
The conflict between South Ossetians and Georgians is decades old. It's 80 years old at least. South Ossetians never felt themselves to be Georgians or a part of Georgia.

MARGARET WARNER: The Russians do say this, Ariel Cohen, that Saakashvili, they say, attacked first and they had no choice. They had Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.

ARIEL COHEN: First of all, the Russian behavior was not a behavior of peacekeepers. It wasn't even a behavior of a good neighbor. This was a behavior of a much stronger power invading a small neighbor.

Having said that, I grant to my colleague, Anna Vassilieva, and to you, that there were clashes. But let's take a look for a second.

The Russian troops -- you cannot say they protected the ethnic Russian population. They protected the Ossetians. After the Russian Federation sent its own secret service officers, military officers to take over the management of South Ossetia, then they extended the citizenship of the Russian Federation into a neighboring country, Georgia.

And now President Putin says that Georgia has no right for its territorial integrity. And that kind of rhetoric and that kind of behavior of sending 200 airplanes and hundreds of tanks violate international law.

And let's face it: Just as the Soviet Union violated international law, now the Russian Federation violates international law. And we need to get over this Cold War-style behavior and focus on what is really important.

For example, I think the Russian Federation should be very concerned about the possibility of nuclear-armed Iran. But, in fact, we had very little cooperation from Russia on that.

MARGARET WARNER: Anna Vassilieva, what do you say to that, particularly the point that Ariel Cohen made which fits with something the Russian foreign minister said today about talk of the territorial integrity of Georgia. And he said today -- we just ran the clip -- he said, "The world can forget this talk about Georgia's territorial integrity." Now, what does that say to you?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: It says a lot to me, and it should say a lot to the world. The conflict between South Ossetians and Georgians is decades old. It's 80 years old at least.

South Ossetians never felt themselves to be Georgians or a part of Georgia, and that feeling of resentment of Georgia was enforced very strongly in 1991 and 1992, when both sides committed extraordinary atrocities against each other in that war that brought -- that Russian peacekeepers brought to an end and resulted in the 1992 agreements, which brought in Russian, Georgian, and South Ossetian peacekeepers.

So the issue is -- and I agree here with my colleague, Ariel Cohen -- is we have to look at the issue of what comprises Georgian territorial integrity. And there are these two outstanding issues, thorns on Georgia's sides, and this is a time for us to try to resolve it.

Russia's international relations

Ariel Cohen
The Heritage Foundation
So if Russia starts to go the way -- God forbid -- of Nazi Germany going into Sudetenland or re-integrating the Rhineland, you know what happened: 55 million people died. And we don't want to go there.

MARGARET WARNER: I'd love to actually go to a broader point, though, that Secretary Gates made about Russia's ambitions here, and that is he said that he wants -- that Russia wanted to send a signal to other former Soviet republics not to get too cozy with the West.

Do you agree with that, Ariel Cohen? And if so, which other countries are now or should be now looking nervously at developments?

ARIEL COHEN: Well, the country that is looking most nervously and is, frankly, scared is Ukraine, because at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, then-President Putin said that, if Ukraine continues on its trajectory, for example, of being a candidate to join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, then Russia may dismember it and detach the Crimea. He raised the issue of Crimea, that was transferred by...

MARGARET WARNER: A part of Ukraine.

ARIEL COHEN: ... now is a part of Ukraine. I was born there. Most people speak Russian.

But what my colleague is suggesting, that you may come now and start revising the borders that were left after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is extremely dangerous for European security. And we have a very, very tragic and bloody precedent of revision of the imperial borders after World War I, when the three empires collapsed, and that led to World War II.

So if Russia starts to go the way -- God forbid -- of Nazi Germany going into Sudetenland or re-integrating the Rhineland, you know what happened: 55 million people died. And we don't want to go there.

MARGARET WARNER: Anna Vassilieva, do you think that's what Russia wants to do, redraw some of these borders?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Absolutely not. Please put the actions of Russia into the context of the recent development. And when I say recent, I mean -- I go back as 1990, 1989 and 1990, when promises were made to Mr. Gorbachev, then the president of the Soviet Union, that NATO will never expand beyond Germany.

Yet what we've been seeing in the last few years, that not only Eastern Europe, Eastern European countries, former countries of the Warsaw bloc were invited into NATO, but, you know, we've been seeing recently the almost pressure or intense desire on the part of the United States to bring into the realm of NATO of Ukraine and Georgia and, in the case of Ukraine, against the will of the population -- majority of the population of Ukraine.

And what do we expect from Russia? How do we expect Russia to react? So that context is very important.

Russia is angry, irritated, and it says, by the action in Georgia, it's time to stop patronizing us and it's time to start to listen to our concerns.

MARGARET WARNER: Very brief final question to you both. Secretary Gates, President Bush, Secretary Rice have all hinted that Russia's now risking its relationship with the West, with the U.S., with NATO, that they may be kicked out of various kinds of cooperation. I won't go through the list.

Do you think, Ariel Cohen, that would change -- that kind of threat changes Vladimir Putin's calculation?

ARIEL COHEN: I think Putin is on a roll. I think the European security is at stake and the Europeans are already taking notion of that.

First, they're drawing together Poland and the new members of the European Union on the one hand, and the so-called -- or Europe and then Europe with the United States, getting together in a historic pattern, again, in opposition to the threats coming from Moscow.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think that would not -- that does not change his calculation?

ARIEL COHEN: We will see. Not for now.

MARGARET WARNER: Anna Vassilieva, what impact do you think those threats, I'll call them, or hints are having on the Russian leadership right now, briefly?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, nothing good is going to come out of it. I believe that the only way to deal with Russia is to have Russia at the negotiation table, to have Russia as a part of all major international agreements and organizations, and that will be the only way to influence Russia's policy, not to patronize Russia, not to teach Russia how to live, not to irritate it, but work together as partners. Once Russians will feel this respect to them, they will act accordingly.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Anna Vassilieva and Ariel Cohen, thank you both.

ARIEL COHEN: Thank you.