The United States should carefully consider its foreign policy priorities before it makes commitments to endangered neighbors of Russia.
On August 8th, Russian troops entered Georgia, quickly overwhelming the small democracy’s military. One month on, the invading soldiers remain on Georgian soil, and Russian leadership has announced its intention to annex the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many in the United States and Europe have called for serious action to be taken, but beyond an aid package sent by the U.S., little has been done to support the tiny republic. It seems that after years of being a dutiful ally of the west, including contributing 2,000 soldiers to security operations in Iraq, Georgia is going to reap little tangible benefit for its troubles.
The United States is not powerless in the face of Russian aggression and expansionism. By extending NATO membership or other military commitments to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the U.S. can draw a line in the sand that Russia would dare not cross. Such a move would certainly chill relations between the United States and Russia, but it would provide for the future security of beleaguered states such as Georgia and Ukraine. What nobler expression could there be of the foreign policy ideals of the United States than coming to the aid of a defenseless, liberty-loving people against the bullying of an autocrat?
Of course, the narrative is not as simple as that; South Ossetia and Abkhazia have wanted to separate from Georgia for nearly two decades, Georgia’s pro-democratic record is somewhat tarnished as of late, and the U.S. has been particularly tone deaf during the past decade in regards to legitimate Russian security concerns.
Even if Georgia were the damsel in distress that it is often made out to be, the U.S. should be hesitant to begin a policy of containment against the Russian Federation. Russian non-cooperation on a global level is a greater threat to the interests of the United States than its aggression on a local level.
One area in which warm relations with Russia are vital is mutual disarmament. Since 1995, the United States and Russia, in a program called Megatons to Megawatts, have blended down 337 metric tons of fissile material (roughly 13,500 warheads worth), into fuel for nuclear reactors. The program is set to expire in 2013 — if disarmament stalls, the United States will not only miss out on the chance to remove a security threat, but it will also lose its source for over half of its uranium supplies.
Similarly, the United States requires Russian cooperation on a host of international issues, from counterterrorism to global warming to securing loose nukes to space travel. Toeing the line in Georgia means moving backwards in many areas vital to the United States.
The worst repercussions will be felt in the Middle East and, with some irony, in the Caucasus itself. Russian influence is needed to bring the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (two other Caucasus states) to a peaceful conclusion. Russian restraint is needed to keep sophisticated weapons from being sold to states such as Syria. Russian backing will be needed to push through a proposed Turkish plan called “Alliance for the Caucasus,” a regional security initiative that could serve as a hedge against expanding Iranian influence. Simply by not doing any favors, Russia can hinder U.S. foreign policy efforts in a way that is much more damaging than a loss of Georgian territory.
Also, should Russia choose to, there are several more active policies it can pursue that would harm Western interests. For starters, it could obstruct United Nations efforts to sanction rogue states, as it has recently done in Zimbabwe. Against Europe, Russia could use its clout to disrupt energy markets and economically harm those nations dependent upon Russian oil supplies. And in Iran, where the U.S. has put a premium on preventing the Islamic republic’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, Russia could clandestinely offer nuclear weapons technology and materials, either as a supplement to Iranian efforts, or as a direct deployment a la the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The outrage currently seen in Washington must be tempered by a measure of realpolitik. There is no need for the U.S. to resort to brinksmanship in response to the Georgian conflict. Engagement, not containment, should remain the order of the day.
Keith Yost is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division.