(Reuters) - One thousand U.S. troops began a military training exercise in Georgia on Tuesday against a backdrop of growing friction between Georgia and neighboring Russia.
Officials said the exercise, called "Immediate Response 2008", had been planned for months and was not linked to a stand-off between Moscow and Tbilisi over two Russian-backed separatists regions of Georgia.
The United States is an ally of Georgia and has irritated Russia by backing Tbilisi's bid to join the NATO military alliance.
"The main purpose of these exercises is to increase the cooperation and partnership between U.S. and Georgian forces," Brigadier General William B. Garrett, commander of the U.S. military's Southern European Task Force, told reporters.
The war games involve 600 Georgian troops and smaller numbers from ex-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
The two-week exercise was taking place at the Vaziani military base near the capital Tbilisi, which was a Russian air force base until Russian forces withdrew at the start of this decade under a European arms reduction agreement.
Georgia and the Pentagon cooperate closely. Georgia has a 2,000-strong contingent supporting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and Washington provides training and equipment to the Georgian military.
Georgia last week recalled its ambassador in Moscow in protest at Russia sending fighter jets into Georgian airspace. Tbilisi urged the West to condemn Russia's actions.
Russia said the flights were to prevent Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from launching a military operation against the separatist South Ossetia region.
Moscow accuses Saakashvili of preparing to restore Tbilisi's control over South Ossetia and the second breakaway region of Abkhazia by force. Tbilisi says that is a pretext for Russia to effectively annex large chunks of Georgian territory.
Vladimir Putin has done this before. When he invaded Georgia in August 2008, Western diplomacy and pressure denied him his ultimate goal: marching to Tbilisi and deposing Georgia’s democratically elected government.
As the Soviet Union was collapsing and Georgia (an ancient country in the Caucasus that had been annexed by Russia early in the nineteenth century) declared its independence, two pro-Russian Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, declared their independence. Bloody conflict followed until 1994, when Russia was finally able to negotiate a cease-fire sustained by Russian peacekeeping troops in both provinces. A fragile peace lasted until January 2004, when an aggressive and impetuous Georgian nationalist, Mikheil Saakashvili, was elected president. In the summer of 2004, Saakashvili sent Interior Ministry troops into South Ossetia, on the pretext of putting down "banditry," to reestablish Georgian control. The Georgians were forced into a humiliating withdrawal, but their violation of the status quo infuriated the Russians. When Saakashvili sent troops into a third independence-minded province in the summer of 2006, it signaled that he was prepared to fight to regain the two pro-Russian separatist provinces. Russian hatred of Saakashvili was stoked further when, in 2007, he went to the border of Abkhazia and promised loyalists there they would be "home" within a year.
The Russians used Kosovo's declaration of independence (it had been a part of Yugoslavia and had long historical ties to Serbia) in February 2008, which the United States and Europeans supported and a pro-Serb Russia opposed, as a pretext to turn up the temperature on Georgia. The West's logic in supporting Kosovo's independence, said the Russians, ought to apply as well to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin in April said Russia might possibly recognize the independence of the two provinces. On April 21, Saakashvili telephoned Putin to demand that Russia reverse course on recognition and cited statements by Western governments opposing it. Putin had used highly colloquial Russian in telling Saakashvili where he could put the Western statements. Soon thereafter Georgia mobilized its troops, and in response, Russia sent 400 paratroopers and a howitzer battery to staging areas near the cease-fire line. Acts of violence in both provinces increased during the summer. On August 7, Georgia launched a massive artillery barrage and incursion to retake the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
So, what I put in bold of Gates' account seems like a good one sentence summary of what turned exchanges of fire into a war.
The next day Russian forces poured into South Ossetia, routed the Georgians, and drove deep into Georgian territory, a punitive attack aimed at the destruction of the Georgian military infrastructure. They attacked military facilities-especially those that had been certified by NATO-and destroyed coastal patrol boats, military equipment, communications, and a number of villages. The deputy chief of the Russian general staff said at the time that the Russian mission was to weaken Georgia's military, but plainly the Russians were also sending a warning to other governments in Central Asia (and Ukraine) about the risks of trying to integrate with NATO.
The Russians had baited a trap, and the impetuous Saakashvili walked right into it. The Russians, Putin in particular, wanted to reassert Russia's traditional sphere of influence, including in the Caucasus. I was asked by a reporter if I trusted Vladimir Putin "anymore"? I responded, " ‘Anymore' is an interesting word. I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities." After meeting with Putin in 2001, President Bush had said he looked into Putin's eyes and "got a sense of his soul." I said to some of my colleagues privately that I'd looked into Putin's eyes and, just as I expected, had seen a stone-cold killer.
As the invasion unfolded, President Bush, Condi, Steve Hadley, Admiral Mullen, and I were all on the phone with our counterparts in both Russia and Georgia-urging the Russians to stop and withdraw to the cease-fire lines while urging the Georgians not to do anything else stupid or provocative. When I talked with Serdyukov on August 8, I told him we were alarmed by the escalation of hostilities and urged him "in the strongest terms to halt the advance of your forces and stop the missile and air attacks inside Georgia." I asked him point-blank if they intended to take all of Georgia. He said no. I was equally blunt with my Georgian counterpart. I told him, "Georgia must not get into a conflict with Russia you cannot win" and that Georgian forces needed to cease hostilities and withdraw to defensible positions. Above all, direct contact between Georgian and Russian forces had to be avoided. I assured him we were pressing the Russians not to introduce more forces into Georgia and to respect Georgia's territorial integrity. ...
While there was broad agreement in our government and elsewhere that Saakashvili's aggressiveness and impetuosity had given the Russians an opportunity to punish Georgia, the violence and extent of Russian military (and cyber) operations were eye-openers for many.
Dick Cheney's memoir is more terse, Saakashvili is mentioned only on p. 513, where he is described as "ordering a response" which gave Putin the excuse he was looking for.
Bush's memoir Decision Points includes this face to face exchange at the Beijing Olympics:
"'I've been warning you that Saakashvili is hot-blooded,' I told Putin.
"'I'm hot-blooded too,' Putin retorted.
"I stared back at him. 'No, Vladimir,' I said. 'You're cold-blooded.' "
In summary, my guess (and it's very much a guess) is that Saakashvili was getting conflicting body language from the Bush Administration. Perhaps he misjudged that Cheney was still the power behind the throne, while Bush's favor had actually shifted toward the less belligerent Gates and Rice, who despised the Georgian.
(By the way, I shouldn't be so personally harsh on Saakashvili, whose nationalist irredentism has its admirable aspects. But, I remain alarmed that the highest level of the United States government allowed itself to wind up debating whether to start bombing Russian forces over this guy's ambitions.)
Allow me to reiterate that all of these factually distorted analogies in the American press right now between Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 are unfair to the new Ukrainian government, which hasn't invaded anybody, and, in general, seems to be behaving quite responsibly.