By Andrei Tsygankov
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.
The United States would be in a state of war with Russia had Georgia been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) when President Mikheil Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia.
Russia responded by ordering its military to defend South Ossetia and Georgia's NATO membership would have not restrained Moscow from protecting Russia's most important interests in the Caucasus. These interests include supporting Russian citizens in South Ossetia and preventing military buildup on Russia's southern border.
Few people in the American political class have contributed more to provoking possible military escalation with Russia than Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain.
A prominent member of the American establishment, McCain has been an extremely partisan advocate of US ties with the small Georgia at the expense of relations with Russia. McCain advisors are also known to have worked as paid lobbyists for Georgia. In the words of the New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, the latter "poses valid questions about McCain's judgment" in choosing those who "are paid to promote the interests of other nations".
To Russia, the American senator's actions have been nothing short of provocative, and the Kremlin made it clear that it holds the McCain-advocated expansion of NATO responsible for the violence in the Caucasus. In the aftermath of the alliance summit in April 2008, then-president Putin stated, "We view the appearance of a powerful military bloc on our borders ... as a direct threat to the security of our country."
More recently, an anonymous senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs predicted a "full-scale crisis of existence" in the United States and a further cooling of relations between the US and Russia. If McCain is elected president, it is likely that Russia will be treated as an enemy, rather than a potential partner, and US-Russia relations will escalate into a military confrontation.
Since 1997 when he first met Saakashvili, McCain's relationship with the future president of Georgia has became a close friendship. He stood behind Saakashvili during Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003; indeed McCain worked to make that revolution happen. In February 2003, six months before the Rose revolution, McCain was among those welcoming Saakashvili in Washington when the latter was received by senior officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney.
The McCain-led International Republican Institute (IRI), an international wing of the National Endowment for Democracy, was involved in training and financing the revolutionary opposition to Saakashvili's political rival Eduard Shevardnadze. Along with other organizations, such as the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and the George Soros foundation, McCain's IRI presented its activities as a support of elections and the democratic process, but in reality it was biased in favor of the pre-selected candidate Saakashvili. On October 2003, immediately before the revolution, McCain traveled to Georgia to convince then-president Shevardnadze to relinquish power after conducting "badly flawed elections".
After helping to bring Saakashvili to power, McCain became a leading voice in advocating for Georgia's membership in NATO - against Russia's objections. Along with other anti-Russian lobbyists and sympathetic politicians, McCain saw the alliance's purpose as to contain Russia and promote American domination in the Eurasian region with its vast resources and geopolitical importance.
Saakashvili had his own objectives in mind in pushing his nation to NATO. In August 2004, Georgia first used force against South Ossetia, attempting to win control over the strategic Djava district. In the fall of the same year, Saakashvili also turned down Russia's offer of a good neighbor treaty and aimed at solving territorial disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia by relying on political support from the United States.
In early 2005, Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton "rewarded" Saakashvili for his strategic choice by nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize for "leading freedom movements in their respective countries" and winning "popular support for the universal values of democracy, individual liberty, and civil rights". This emboldened Georgia's leader to the point that balanced American observers, like Dmitri Simes, asked: "Why do we allow and sometimes even encourage Georgia to continue provoking Moscow at our expense?"
In August 2006, Senator McCain again traveled to Georgia as a part of a US Senate delegation. In evaluating the situation in the region, he found "a tremendous progress" in Georgia, but decried Russia's role, urging for the replacement of its peacekeepers in the region. Although his objective was to assess the state of Georgia's frozen conflicts and NATO membership effort, McCain had come to the region with his conclusions already formed.
Speaking in Brussels before his trip to the Caucasus during the same year, he insisted that "We should be crystal clear: these conflicts endure because of Russian policy and Russian support for illegal separatists." He further condemned "Russia's predatory use of energy supplies and its reversal of democracy at home."
In the meantime, McCain's advisors lobbied on behalf of Georgia's NATO membership in Washington and Europe. According to records at the Justice Department's foreign agents registration office, in recent years McCain's advisor Randy Scheunemann and his partner, Mike Mitchell, were paid more $830,000 by Georgia for advocating its membership to NATO.
Holding neo-conservative political beliefs, these American lobbyists did not see a principal conflict with US national interests: they were providing Georgia and others with highly questionable security guarantees against Russia in exchange for obtaining Tbilisi's full support of even more doubtful American policies, such as the invasion of Iraq, all at the cost of angering Moscow. Instead of repairing its relations with Russia, tiny Georgia reciprocated by sending the third largest military contingent to Iraq and paying handsomely to anti-Russian lobbyists in Washington.
When in November 2007 Saakashvili used force against his opponents at home, McCain's voice wasn't heard among the critics of Georgia. However, when Russia recently intervened to stop the Georgian military attack on South Ossetia, the American Senator was again accusing the Kremlin - this time of "a de facto annexation of part of Georgia" - and urging Western governments not to allow Russia to "undermine Georgian sovereignty."
So extensive was McCain's involvement with Saakashvili during the crisis that the two talked over the phone several times a day. As Saakashvili said, referring to his American friend, "he spends less time on his presidential campaign these days and lots of time on Georgia." In his turn, the McCain said presumptuously, "I told him that I know I speak for every American when I said to him, today, we are all Georgians."
Russia has always been presented by McCain in an extremely negative light, and as deserving of only a hard-line response. Assisted by the American media, the Republican Senator never missed an opportunity to blame Russia for everything that was going wrong in the former Soviet region and outside. It was following McCain's statement warning of "a creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism" in Russia, delivered in the Senate on November 6, 2003, that many on Capitol Hill, including senators Joseph Lieberman, Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, were soon calling on the administration to get tough with the Kremlin.
In 2004, McCain prominently supported the pro-Khodorkovsky campaign, along with such known advocates of American hegemony as Richard Perle. He subsequently made a number of anti-Russian statements and co-signed a number of anti-Russian letters, such as An Open Letter to the Heads of State and Government Of the European Union and NATO, organized by the right-wing group the Project for New American Century and released in September 2004.
During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, McCain was again on the frontline. In addition to traveling to the country, the American Senator publicly promoted breaking Russia's Ukraine connection, and insisted on "tying" Ukraine "to the West". Along with others in the American political class, he overwhelmingly supported the color revolutionaries' drive to join NATO and circumvent Russia's energy pipelines, claiming that doing otherwise would amount to appeasing the Kremlin. In early 2005, McCain was among the first to call for expelling Russia from the G8.
In the Caucasus or outside, McCain believed that Russia was doing everything in its power to restore the old imperial control. Whatever actions were pursued by the Kremlin - reluctance to dismantle its military bases in Georgia, the exercise of force in Chechnya, promises to preventively use military force outside its own territory to respond to terrorist threats - was construed by McCain and his supporters as an imperialism incompatible with Western objectives and Russia's own international treaty obligations. Whatever instability persisted in the former Soviet region was linked to the Kremlin's failures or deliberate manipulations.
These policy beliefs partly explain McCain's dismissive, even contemptuous tone while speaking about Russia. For example, in his remarks to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, McCain proceeded from assumptions about the Kremlin's threatening intentions and spoke of "Russia's nuclear blackmail" - apparently referring to the nation's unwillingness to acquiesce to the US missile defense system (MDS) plans. McCain's disdain for Russia's view was clearly revealed during a Republican debate on MDS, when he said "I don't care what [Vladimir Putin's] objections are to it."
In his article published in the Financial Times, McCain appealed to the European audience, seeking to rally it behind the US on an anti-Russian platform. Repeating the nuclear blackmail thesis, the republican senator charged that Putin's "blend of cynicism and Napoleonic delusion presents a dangerous challenge to the Euro-Atlantic community," and he insisted on confronting Russia's "profoundly authoritarian regime, dominated by an intelligence service hostile to Western liberal values".
Some have suggested that, if he is elected president, McCain may be restrained in his further actions toward Russia. American institutions and the heavy burden of responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the world may indeed encourage him to try diplomacy rather than belligerent rhetoric and hot-headed actions in Eurasia.
But there is also the possibility that McCain will do what he says, and chose steps leading to a military escalation with the second largest world nuclear power. The question is whether Americans would want to explore that possibility.
Andrei P Tsygankov is professor of international relations and political science at San Francisco State University and the author of Anti-Russian Lobby and American Foreign Policy (forthcoming).
(Copyright 2008 Andrei P Tsygankov.)