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What Russia's invasion of Georgia means for Crimea

- March 5, 2014

Troops under Russian command scream orders to turn back before firing weapons into the air at an approaching group of over 100 unarmed Ukrainian troops at the Belbek airbase, which the Russian troops are occcupying, in Lubimovka, Ukraine. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
This is a guest post by University of Connecticut political scientist Stephen Benedict Dyson, based on an exclusive interview with Daniel Fata, the Pentagon official who coordinated the U.S. response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
The crisis in Ukraine has a recent precedent: Russia’s aggression in Georgia in August 2008. For an insider’s view on what happened then and what the stakes are now, I talked via e-mail with Daniel Fata, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from September 2005 to September 2008.
Fata, who was the senior Pentagon official on duty supporting Defense Secretary Robert Gates as news of Russia’s invasion broke, believes that Putin was “never punished by the international community” for the aggression in Georgia. Crimea, Fata adds, “is in many ways a redux” of the August 2008 war. Back then there was a period of confusion as the conflict broke out late on a Thursday night when many senior officials were out of town, and there was no well-established U.S. or European position on the issue. “We were scrambling for information during these critical initial hours. My desk officer, who had great personal ties at the highest levels in Tbilisi, had the most usable real time information via texts from his friends in Georgia.”
Fata is suspicious of Putin’s claim that his intervention in Ukraine is limited in scope and designed to protect Russian citizens. Putin gave similar assurances to the United States over Georgia, Fata recalls. “He lied.” Putin’s intention all along in Georgia was to bring about the end of the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who survived in office but whose standing was weakened by the war. In Crimea, Fata is convinced that Putin’s ultimate objective is “to try and take Kiev if he can, and if the consequences aren’t too severe for him.”
The United States should have three goals in the current crisis, in Fata’s view: Russia must be deterred from attempting to advance any further into Ukraine; the United States must reassure its allies and partners in the region that their security will be guaranteed; and Russian gains must be rolled back. In Georgia, the United States achieved the first two of these goals, but to this day has not accomplished a roll-back of Russian gains. Fata believes achieving these goals is critical not only for Ukraine but for the credibility of U.S. policy in the region and around the world. “We cannot seem to be weak or hesitant. That doesn’t mean mobilize yet but it does mean we need to be resolute and have some form of an actual, executable plan for how we will shore up our allies.”
Putin’s actions in Crimea have focused attention there, but the United States and its allies need to watch for a Russian move elsewhere, Fata believes. In 2008, the United States was concerned about potential Russian aggression in the Georgian region of South Ossetia, and was taken by surprise when the Russian military moved instead on Abkhazia. “We were caught off guard as we were looking at the wrong flashpoint.” The U.S. must not make the same mistake this time. “I can easily see where Putin could move his forces to finish the job in Georgia, make some hay in Azerbaijan, scramble bombers to intimidate the Baltic States, Poland, the Moldovans, and the Romanians. This is why we’ve got to express solidarity with our allies [in the region] and make sure we are in constant contact with them.”
In Fata’s view, Putin won’t be swayed by rhetorical condemnation or by being “threatened with things that don’t matter” to him like canceling a NATO-Russia Council meeting or military-to-military cooperation with the United States. “We need to find things that matter to Putin that we can threaten to cut off and suspend.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel might emerge as the crucial figure in the crisis, Fata believes, as she is “the only European leader that matters to him. She needs to be leveraged to help bring this aggression to an end.”
What is driving Russian assertiveness? “Putin wants to be seen as a player,” Fata says, “a great power like France, Germany, and the UK.” Fata was part of the U.S. delegation that traveled to Moscow in April 2007, when the Russian president told then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the West “did not appreciate how devastating and humiliating the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of the Russian Empire was to the Russian people.” Putin told Gates that his goal was to “restore Russian national pride.” He said he was going to exert what Russian influence there was in world affairs. He didn’t say whether this influence was going to be positive or negative, Fata recalls.
Fata, an alumnus of my university and keen advocate of bridging the gap between policymakers and academics, wants to “share what I went through in 2008 and where we could have done a far better job. The stakes are just as big if not bigger this time around.” Fata’s bottom line is that the United States must not be pushed around by a resurgent Russia. “We have the political, economic, and military strength to get Putin to stop,” he says. But “the clock is ticking.”