James F. Jeffrey was Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser in August 2008 and the first to inform him that Russian troops were moving into Georgia in response to what the Kremlin called Georgian aggression against South Ossetia. As it happened, the clash also took place at Olympic time; Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin were both in Beijing for the Summer Games.
Mr. Bush confronted Mr. Putin to no avail and then ordered American ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with American military personnel present. Mr. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts.
“We did a lot but in the end there was not that much that you could do,” Mr. Jeffrey recalled.
Inside the Bush administration, there was discussion of more robust action, like bombing the Roki Tunnel to block Russian troops or providing Georgia with Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bristled at what she called the “chest beating,” and the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, urged the president to poll his team to see if anyone recommended sending American troops.
None did, and Mr. Bush was not willing to risk escalation. While Russia stopped short of moving into Tbilisi, it secured the effective independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while leaving troops in areas it was supposed to evacuate under a cease-fire. Within a year or so, Russia’s isolation was over. Mr. Obama took office and tried to improve relations. NATO resumed military contacts in 2009 and the United States revived the civilian nuclear agreement in 2010.
Mr. Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr. Obama should now respond assertively by suggesting that NATO deploy forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border to draw a line. “There’s nothing we can do to save Ukraine at this point,” he said. “All we can do is save the alliance.”