While much of the world has been distracted by crises in Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, a dangerous dispute over espionage, energy, and ethnicity has been growing between Russia and its diminutive neighbor Georgia.
The relationship, prickly since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, took a sharp turn for the worse in late September, when Georgia arrested four Russian soldiers for alleged spying and threatened to block Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia responded with a ham-fisted crackdown on all things Georgian, cutting off trade and telecommunications to the country and deporting planeloads of Georgian citizens.
Media coverage of the dispute has focused on the behavior of the principal antagonists, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But there is another powerful player who has remained far off stage: the United States. Its fingerprints aren't obvious, but Washington has helped to fuel this crisis—by showering Georgia with cash and praise, by extending the promise of NATO membership, and by standing silent as Saakashvili and his government made ever rasher attacks on Russia.
U.S. security aid to Georgia totaled $30.5 million in fiscal year 2006, on top of $60.5 million the previous year and $60 million the year before that. Due in large part to American largesse, Georgia's overall military expenditures shot up 143 percent last year. Georgia has also been a favorite of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Bush administration's signature program that was intended to reward those developing countries that demonstrate effective governance. Contracts totaling $295.3 million have been signed with Georgia, making it fourth in the world in total Millennium Challenge aid.
Flush with cash and the superpower's blessing, the American-educated Saakashvili has become more brash with time, seizing every opportunity to stick it to the colossus to the north. "We can't be treated as some second-rate backyard to some kind of re-emerging empire," Saakashvili told reporters earlier this month as the latest crisis gained momentum.
The tough talk plays well at home, as evidenced this month when Saakashvili's United National Movement party swept more than three quarters of the vote in local elections. But it is a triumph of bluster over geographical common sense in a nation that remains very much in Russia's shadow.
Georgia, with fewer than 5 million people, depends on Russia for natural gas, a lesson reinforced last winter when Russia used the excuse of a still-unexplained pipeline explosion to cut off the taps. Last spring, Russia ratcheted up the pressure, shutting its market to wine and Borjomi mineral water, Georgia's two most important exports. Now, it is threatening the country's biggest source of hard currency, cash sent home by the nearly 1 million Georgians who work in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Saakashvili's claim to be fighting the good fight against a hegemonic Russia has been dented by the way he's handled his country's own territorial disputes. He came to power promising to reunite Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions that broke away in the bloodshed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has spent more time rattling sabers than building trust, however, with the predictable result that many of the residents in those regions have taken Russian passports and now look to Moscow, not Tbilisi, as the more reliable engine of jobs and security.
Saakashvili has also come under fire for his management of the parts of Georgia his government controls. Ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis say they are as marginalized as ever. Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other outside groups have documented judicial corruption, police abuse, and the gross mistreatment of prison inmates, including the deaths of seven prisoners last March in a "riot" that critics say was set off by prison authorities themselves.
That same week in Tbilisi, hundreds of demonstrators protested the government 's alleged cover-up of the Interior Ministry's involvement in a high-profile murder. One of the country's most prominent television newscasters quit her job on camera, to protest attempts to censor the news at the government-affiliated channel.
And where was Saakashvili during all the turmoil? He was at the White House, basking in the glow of President George W. Bush's praise. Saakashvili "is a man who shares the same values I share," Bush said. "He believes in the universality of freedom."
Bush even singled out Saakashvili's work in law enforcement, the issue that had sent protesters to the streets and brought the sharpest criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch. "[H]e cleaned out the police forces in order to rid the country of corruption in the law enforcement," Bush said, ignoring critics who say that the Georgian president has run roughshod over basic human rights.
Saakashvili shouldn't believe everything he hears from Washington. Despite the fulsome rhetoric and American largess, make no mistake—the United States would not come to Georgia's aid if its confrontation with Russia heats up. Georgia is in Russia's backyard. Given its military exposure elsewhere and its interest in Russian help on issues like North Korea and Iran, the United States will almost always side with Russia, or at the very least, remain on the sidelines.
America's true interests were on display in this month's debate on Security Council sanctions against North Korea. The United States needed Russia's vote, and Russia's vote it got, but only after the United States acquiesced to a separate Russian-backed resolution. That resolution endorsed the presence of Moscow's soldiers in the Georgia breakaway regions and criticized Georgia for its military incursion into Abkhazia this summer.
U.S. officials insist there was no quid pro quo, that in fact they successfully softened an earlier Russian draft that was even tougher on Georgia. To many Georgians, however, the U.N. episode was a splash of cold water, a reminder that loose cash and looser talk on the American side has done little more than fuel reckless behavior by Georgia's leader.
If Saakashvili gets the war with Russia he has sometimes appeared to seek, it is the people of his country who will pay the price. But, far away from the fighting, the United States will bear a large part of the blame.
Jon Sawyer is director of the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. He traveled to Georgia and other South Caucasus countries this summer.