Today we consider the future of U.S. relations with Russia in the aftermath of the crisis that erupted with sudden ferocity in the Republic of Georgia five weeks ago.
But before looking ahead, we also need to look back more than five weeks to understand what role U.S. policy toward Russia and Georgia played in setting the stage for these events.
Over the last few months, the international community watched with increasing concern as the Russian government sought to provoke Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili through an escalating series of questionable legal and military actions. Russia established official ties with the separatist government in Abkhazia, issuing passports and citizenship to its residents. Then Moscow dispatched a military jet to down a Georgian reconnaissance craft, and it deployed railway troops to Abkhazia under dubious pretenses. When this failed to stimulate a reaction from the Georgians, the Russians sought to destabilize South Ossetia instead.
On August 8th, the world watched the sad climax of months of provocation. Television screens were filled with the sickening juxtaposition of Russian tanks rolling across Georgian soil while the world celebrated peace and harmony during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.
President Saakashvili’s decision to take Russia’s bait and to engage militarily was a terrible blunder. But before we render too harsh a judgment, consider the intensifying provocations that the Georgian government faced, including reports of ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia.
Russia’s use of disproportionate force and its failure to respond to two Georgian ceasefire offers made it painfully clear that its goal was not to protect its supposed citizens in South Ossetia as it claimed, but rather to remove the democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation. As evidenced by Russian President Medvedev’s recent comments, that effort continues.
Two weeks after the conflict started, our colleague George Miller and I went to Tbilisi at the request of Speaker Pelosi to demonstrate solidarity with the Georgian people and to deliver humanitarian aid. We met the president and other top officials, and we affirmed that the sovereignty of Georgia should be respected, and the integrity of its borders should be restored.
Indeed, I am pleased to see in the audience today the ambassador of Georgia to the United States, as well as David Bakradze, the chairman of the Georgian Parliament and several of his colleagues. We very much appreciate your diplomatic efforts on behalf of your country.
While it’s important to acknowledge the agreement reached yesterday between French President Sarkozy and President Medvedev regarding the withdrawal of Russian troops from undisputed Georgian territory, the refusal of President Medvedev to reconsider his decision recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is quite troubling. This action violates legal principles of territorial integrity.
While historians and military analysts will long debate who fired the first shot in the August skirmish, there are two key questions before the committee today. First, how can we rebuild Georgia most quickly and effectively? Second, how should we reassess US-Russian relations in the aftermath of Russia’s use of disproportionate force against its sovereign neighbor?
Last week President Bush presented his assistance package for Georgia. While a robust response to the economic and humanitarian crisis is welcome, and while there is strong bipartisan support for delivering urgently needed aid to an ally, there should be a serious discussion about the activities to be funded and the budget authorities to be used.
I note that the Administration’s package contains nothing to strengthen the accountability, inclusiveness and transparency of Georgia’s political institutions. Such omissions have previously been identified as a weakness of U.S. policy toward Georgia. Now would be an appropriate time to rectify this oversight.
There has also been resounding silence from the White House thus far on the issue of military assistance. While I understand that the Department of Defense currently has an assessment team in Georgia, it would be helpful to know whether the Administration is planning to provide such aid. If so, will it be basic replenishment of armaments damaged in the recent conflict? Will it allow Georgia the ability to participate in foreign missions such as Iraq? Or will it provide the capacity for self-defense in case of future attacks? Given the asymmetrical nature of the Russian and Georgian forces, just what kinds of arms could possibly give Tbilisi the ability to defend itself from future incursions?
If Georgia is to remain a viable candidate for NATO membership, it will require significant assistance in rebuilding its military. To me, it seems that our approach to the Bucharest Summit in April produced the worst possible outcome. The Administration pushed for Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan, knowing full well that this step would be blocked by the Germans and the French. As a consolation prize, the final communiqué expressed NATO’s intent to admit Georgia to the Alliance eventually. Did this decision signal to the Russians that Georgia has no current security guarantees, but would eventually be covered by Article 5 protection, and that therefore this was the time for Russia to set the trap to “justify” an immediate attack?
Here’s the depressing truth: By all rights we should be doing everything possible to reassure our friends in Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States, and elsewhere in the region that they will not fall victim to similar acts of Russian aggression. But at this particular moment in history, the ability to provide that protection is under serious question.
If the Administration doesn’t have a military strategy in place, then I hope they at least have a diplomatic one! It seems odd that no senior American official has bothered to visit Russia before, during or after the conflict. We have been reassured by the White House that – in the Administration’s own words – “the Russians know our position.” Well, clearly they either didn’t know or didn’t care.
Since then, the Administration has issued strong condemnations but the actions have failed to live up to its rhetoric. Administration policy toward Russia seems to be: Speak loudly, carry a small stick.
The question we must urgently address is what our future relationship with Russia is going to look like. If the primary goal of Russian foreign policy is to thwart the American diplomatic agenda, then how can we expect Moscow to be a reliable partner in dealing with the many international challenges we face?
On the other hand, if Russian behavior is largely a response to our failure to prioritize this bilateral relationship and to seek cooperation on the key challenges – and here I speak most particularly of Iran’s nuclear weapons program – then don’t we need to review and recalibrate how we’ve been handling this relationship?
It’s now my pleasure to turn to the distinguished ranking member, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for any opening comments she may wish to make.