In Escalating Russian-Georgian Conflict, the Cold War is Back

As Russia stepped up attacks against Georgian moves to reassert control over the breakaway pro-Russian province of South Ossetia, and many civilians were reported killed and thousands displaced, I asked former deputy director of the CIA’s Soviet and East Europe division Milt Bearden why Russia and Georgia had chosen to escalate their long simmering dispute over South Ossetia now.

“As far as Russia goes, it’s easy: They’re baaack!” Bearden said. “And the Russians are doing what comes naturally to them in their new mood. They know the Europeans don’t want a face-off with Russia/Gazprom. They know the U.S. is so preoccupied with its own self inflicted disasters that it can do nothing but wring it hands. So why not now? It also would seem to stop NATO enlargement in its tracks. Just imagine Georgia inside NATO, and protected under Article 5!!”

“The US is helpless and Europe won’t touch this,” Bearden added. “Russia is feeling its oats. And yes, Georgia is George Bush’s beacon for liberty in the Caucasus. What’s he going to do? The Russians know one thing: how to count the cards. They know that not one of these chickens” will do anything.

I asked Bearden why pro-Western Georgia would have moved now to reassert control over South Ossetia, which at least in part seemed to provoke the Russian invasion. Was Georgia led to believe that the West would come to its aid in a military dispute with Moscow?

Bearden said it was pure miscalculation on Georgia’s part. “Almost every conflict in the region begins with a huge miscalculation by one or more parties. The Georgians are fully capable of this miscalculation. They believed they were going to hear the bugles coming over the hill. They are not going to hear anything.”

Update: Check out this Washington Post account of a UN emergency meeting on the Georgian crisis the US called yesterday. The US accused Russia of demanding in a confidential conversation with US Secretary of State Rice the removal of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. And the Russians? Russian envoy Vitaly “Churkin accused the United States of aiding and abetting Saakashvili, saying more than 100 U.S. advisers were providing training to Georgian forces on the eve of their military offensive against South Ossetia, and suggested that U.S. officials may have given Georgia the ‘green light’ to strike.” Did the US give Georgia the green light to strike?

Meantime, Georgians on the run question the Bush administration’s lofty rhetoric. “Where are our friends?” one retreating Georgian soldier told the Times. Former Clinton foreign policy hands Richard Holbrooke and Ronald Asmus weigh in here.

(Map of Georgia and the surrounding region linked from