If you think we are somehow uniquely weak on Russia lately, we’ve got news for you: the United States has been weak on Russia for a long time now.
If the edifice of the liberal world order is in danger of collapse today — and it is — when did the pillars begin to weaken? Many date the problems to President Trump’s election. But while Trump’s “America First” approach to the world has significantly widened the cracks in the order, perhaps making them irreparable, they appeared long before he did.
Ten years ago this week, Vladimir Putin struck one of the first major blows when he sent Russian forces into South Ossetia in neighboring Georgia in support of Russian-backed separatists. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, fearing a full-blown invasion, ordered his troops to attack, thus springing Putin’s trap. Using the Georgian attack as a pretext, Putin launched that full-blown invasion, with tens of thousands of troops, fighter aircraft and elements of the Black Sea Fleet all pre-positioned and ready to move the instant Saakashvili acted.
The five-day Russo-Georgian war was ostensibly fought over disputed territories, but Putin’s real purpose was geopolitical. Georgia, like other former Soviet satellites and republics, was seeking to integrate into the West economically and politically, and to gain Western protection from Moscow. Fearing Putin’s reaction, NATO that spring had refused to offer Georgia even a road map to membership in the alliance, but Putin moved anyway — to punish the Georgians, to warn others and to send a clear message to the West. Russia was going to reassert its hegemony by force.
The West’s response bordered on indifference. The administration of George W. Bush, which had championed Georgia’s appeal for NATO membership, wanted little to do with the crisis. Just as President Barack Obama clearly believed that Ukraine was not worth war with Russia, Bush’s national security adviser ended all talk of punishing Moscow’s aggression by asking: “Are we prepared to go to war with Russia over Georgia?”
Putin repeated the same tactic with Ukraine. The United States hasn’t really stood up to Russia in a decade.