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The TNR Q&A: Charles Fairbanks

As Russia agreed to a ceasefire on Tuesday, saying its invasion of Georgia has “punished” the country enough, TNR’s Seyward Darby spoke with Charles Fairbanks, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former deputy assistant secretary in the Department of State (as well as being the father of our Associate Editor, Eve Fairbanks), who spends six months of the year teaching at Ilia Chavchavadze State University in Georgia. Fairbanks describes the war as “deeply, deeply depressing,” with far-reaching implications that will influence policy in the last months of President George W. Bush’s administration and all future relations between Russia and the West.

The New Republic: This conflict seems as much an attack by Russia on the West as it does an assault on Georgia. What do you believe Russia’s main motivations to invade were, and whom, ultimately, was it targeting?

Charles Fairbanks: There is incredible resentment [in Russia toward the West] because of the terrible, wrenching changes that occurred in what was once the Soviet Union. We sponsored these “reforms” that helped powerful people steal most of the public property, took away the empire and shattered the Soviet Union, as they see it. This is like some kind of bubble at the bottom of a stagnant pond: It suddenly burst up now to the surface, and that’s the cause of the war.

Everyone in Russia and everyone in Georgia, minus half a dozen people I could name, regards this as a proxy war, like the Korean War. They all thought Russia and Georgia were waging war, but we were the hand behind the glove of Georgia. So absolutely, without any question [Russia was targeting the West]. The more recent annoyances were that, while the United States constantly talked about friendship with Russia, and Bush talked about Putin as a real friend and a Christian, from the Russian point of view, every specific aspect of American foreign policy was hostile to Russian pride and to Russian interests. The leading items are NATO expansion--which achieved many good things, but it had an inevitable price, which no one was saving up to pay--and Caspian strategy, which, from the Russian point of view, amounts to filching away pieces of what is, in principle, the Russian empire.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has pointed to the West as the source of blame for the conflict. Is he correct?

He’s absolutely wrong there, and he ought to be contradicted in public by President Bush or other public officials. The United States at every level, ranging from the Georgia desk officer to President Bush speaking to Saakashvili, warned Georgia repeatedly against invading South Ossetia or getting involved in any Russian provocation.

Saakashvili is a poster child for U.S. efforts at democratic expansion. How genuine is his commitment to democracy?

Things look very, very different in the last 10 months than they did during the Rose Revolution. When the Georgian government smashed up the only independent television station for the whole of Georgia on November 7, beat up the journalists, and closed it down, President Bush’s emissary delivered a public ultimatum that it had to be returned to the airwaves. The Georgian government never let anything political return on that channel: no news, no talk shows, nothing. We just dropped our demand, as though we had no influence over tiny Georgia, and invited the president who had crushed free television to the White House for hugs and photo-ops. We don’t follow through on anything we say we insist on for democracy, and ignoring our demands has no consequences. So the bellicose elements in the Georgian leadership drew the inference: Our warnings against war for South Ossetia must be empty gestures. The feebleness of our democracy promotion efforts bore poisoned geopolitical fruit, and we were surprised by that.

Some experts have said Saakashvili overestimated his power and influence, as well as his Western support. Where in his actions and estimations did he err?

Like the United States, he totally underestimated the seriousness, the ruthlessness, and the degree of initiative the Russians would take. Diplomacy is always--and even war is-- usually very much like a dance or a chess game, in that you make certain moves and the opposition is constrained such that he can only make some moves in reply. The Georgian army, the professional part of it, is good, so the idea was that if there was a little border war on the southern fringe of South Ossetia--though actually their ambitions went further--Georgia could prevail before its American patrons brought the war to a close. There they underestimated the pent-up rage of the Russians, and the assumption was obviously that if they got into real trouble, [the United States] would bail them out.

How would you characterize the U.S. response to the crisis? Could the administration be doing more?

This is a huge event. It really alters the international landscape, and the backgrounders that came out of the State Department talk as though it’s just another little outbreak of instability in the third world. There’s no realization that this is an event like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The real test of the Bush administration’s policy will come in the next months--whether there is any fundamental adjustment to totally new realities in our relationship with Russia and in our awareness of the problems with the Georgian government.

How will the U.S. and the world engage with Russia, after its willingness to assert itself geopolitically has reared its head so violently?

The Bush administration is mesmerized by the goal of getting Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that’s indeed a tremendously important thing to do. But there is a very real question of whether it can be done at all, and one has the impression from backgrounders and conversations that the dominant consideration in the handling of this [Georgia] crisis was to not offend Russia too much, to get cooperation above all on the Iranian nuclear issue. That seems to me very short-sighted because Russia is victorious, and they think, even if we don’t, that we lost a war. The result is that Russian cooperation will come at a higher price on every issue.

What does the future hold for Georgia?

On a personal level, the response to Soviet rule was to create resignation and apathy, and people had a lack of confidence in themselves and assumed that they couldn’t change things. The Rose Revolution changed that a lot, [but now] I think people have lost that new confidence. There’s tremendous bitterness against the United States, ranging from the top of the government to the most ordinary people. It’s sad, because we warned against this adventure, but there’s a universal belief that the United States betrayed Georgia, so you have people who are really in despair and profoundly hopeless. We’ve lost 70 percent of our influence in the Caucasus in four days. The future is very dark, I think, unless either the Georgian public or the American government becomes much, much more serious and tries to retrieve the situation. That can happen, but one can’t bet on it.

Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.


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By Seyward Darby