Relocations: Still playing big-power games

Herbert Rothschild
February 24, 2022

Russia did to Georgia what it’s now doing to Ukraine

By Herbert Rothschild

I write this while Russia is conducting its “shock and awe” military campaign against Ukraine. I am grieving, just as I have grieved over every war fought during my adulthood. I grieve because so many people — none of whom had a voice in the decisions that led to these wars — will be killed or maimed or displaced from their homes. They are caught in the Big Power political games in which my country has been a major player.

The narrative about Russia’s actions in Ukraine that had already been formulated and will surely prevail in this country is that Putin is intent on restoring Russia to great power status and that the entire blame for the war fails upon him. I agree with the first part of that statement but not the second. U.S. actions toward and in Ukraine were the latest episode in a series of threats to Russian security and the humiliation of the former great power. Putin found them intolerable and knew he could push back with relative impunity.

What convinced Putin that he could get away with bringing Ukraine to heel was Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, also a former Soviet republic. The circumstances are so parallel that only a very shortsighted or very stubborn U.S. security establishment could have failed to predict the current events. Like Ukraine, in Georgia’s case there were two parts of the country — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — that had claimed a good bit of autonomy from the central government once a pro-Western popular uprising had ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from the presidency. Russia supported the separatists and defeated Georgia militarily when President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to bring them back into the fold by force. That put an end to the threat that Georgia would join NATO.

The possibility that the former part of the Soviet Union would join NATO was a major Russian concern in that conflict, just as it has been in the present one (see my Jan. 27 column). During the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, American president George W. Bush campaigned for offering a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. Germany and France said that offering a MAP to Ukraine and Georgia would be “an unnecessary offence” to Russia, but under U.S. control, NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia eventually would be admitted into the alliance and pledged to review the requests for MAP in December 2008.

Putin was in Bucharest then and, when the summit ended, he declared that Russian Russia would regard NATO’s enlargement to its borders as a direct threat to its security. Russia intervened militarily in Georgia the next month. In November 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev told veterans of the fighting that NATO would have admitted Georgia had it not been for Russia’s military intervention.

The interpretation of the 2014 overthrow of democratically elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is much-contested. Its supporters call it the Revolution of Dignity. Its opponents call it a neo-Nazi coup engineered by the U.S. There is some truth in both characterizations, but by no means all. The opposition to Yanukovich’s rule was far more widespread than the neo-Nazis who were in the vanguard of the Maidan Revolution. He was highly corrupt, as was his predecessor and his immediate successor, and perhaps a majority of Ukrainians did want much closer ties to the European Union than Yanukovich was willing to form. Many other Ukrainians, however, especially the Russian-speaking populations in the eastern provinces that rebelled and which Putin has recognized as independent states, felt that the ouster of Yanukovich was unacceptably undemocratic.

It was no coincidence that within weeks of Yanukovich’s ouster and flight to Moscow, Russia re-claimed the Crimea. I use the word “re-claimed” because Crimea had been part of Russia since 1783 and only became part of Ukraine when Ukraine was still in the U.S.S.R. Nikita Khrushchev, who transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, never imagined it might fall under Western military control. Putin moved swiftly to retain Russia’s primary warm-sea naval base.

Despite this extended history of Russian actions to secure itself from what it regards as Western hostility, the U.S. insisted that it would one day offer NATO membership to Ukraine and refused to take that off the table in the negotiations leading up to the present invasion. So, we now find ourselves rebuked. There is no will among the American people to fight a war over Ukraine, and it’s unlikely the economic sanctions will change geopolitics. It will be ordinary people in several countries, but especially in the Ukraine, who will suffer. 

Such are Big Power political games. Apart from moral considerations, the U.S. has played them badly since the early 1990s. George Kennan, an ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and the prime architect of Soviet containment, published a piece in the New York Times on February 5, 1997, when the drive to expand NATO eastward had begun. Titled “A Fateful Error,” Kennan wrote, “Why, with all the hopeful possibilities engendered by the end of the Cold War, should East-West relations become centered on the question of who would be allied with whom and, by implication, against whom in some fanciful, totally unforeseeable and most improbable future military conflict? . . . [E]xpanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Well, here we are.

Email board member and columnist Herbert Rothschild at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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