Carroll County Times

Tom Zirpoli: Russia repeating Georgia strategy

When it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine, my Republican friends have short memories.

They blame it all on President Barack Obama because, they say, Russian President Vladimir Putin perceives him as weak.

So allow me to take my friends down memory lane to August 2008, when George W. Bush was sitting in the White House and Russia invaded the nation of Georgia with both infantry troops from the east and naval forces from the west. Bush, thankfully, did not start a war with Russia. In fact, compared to Obama's response to Russia's recent aggression in Ukraine, Bush's response to the invasion of Georgia could be described as timid. The same may be said of the European Union's response today compared to 2008.

Mikheil Saakashvili remembers the time well. He was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2012. Writing for The Guardian, Saakashvili stated that there are many parallels between the two conflicts. In both cases, Russian President Putin used the excuse of protecting fellow Russians. "The invasions of Ukraine and Georgia bear striking similarities," Saakashvili wrote, "not only because the pattern of the invader stays the same, but also because the two countries share deep historic parallels."

Both conflicts started when Georgia and Ukraine made it clear that they wanted to join NATO. To Putin, Saakashvili said, this interest to be part of the West is "a direct threat" to Putin's "iron grip in Russia." As stated by Holman Jenkins writing for The Wall Street Journal, "Putin would not fear his neighbors becoming prosperous and modern if he didn't fear his own citizens' demands for the same."

Saakashvili, who now lives in the U.S. and is a lecturer at Tufts University, reminds us that soon after Russia invaded Georgia, both the U.S. and the European Union managed to "get back to business as usual with Russia" fairly quickly. "Looking back," he wrote, perhaps "this gave Putin the sense he could get away with a similar adventure closer to Europe's heartland, in a country whose population is 10 times greater than Georgia's."

Perhaps it was a weak response from an American president and the European Union in 2008, as Saakashvili suggests, that gave Putin the confidence to invade Ukraine. I don't think so. Putin sees the joining of NATO by any of his neighboring states as a threat to Russian security and his dream of rebuilding the Soviet Union. He probably would have invaded Georgia regardless of who was sitting in the White House in 2008, and the same can be said for his behavior today.

Bush and his European partners signed agreements allowing Russian troops to remain in significant parts of Georgia. Americans are free to compare those actions with Obama's condemnation of Putin today. Unlike in 2008, I don't think Americans will see business as usual between Russia and the U.S. going forward.

Thomas Friedman, writing for The New York Times, sees this crisis as an opportunity to finally get our energy needs in check while taking away Putin's significant leverage - his oil and gas.

If we can pitch clean energy investment here in America with anti-Putin slogans, then perhaps we can get the war hawks in the Republican Party on board. If we are going to have a second Cold War, writes Friedman, "this time I want an Earth Race. I want America to lead in developing an energy policy that will weaken the oil-and-gas-autocracy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and, as a byproduct, produce the technologies that will mitigate climate change, make America a global technology and moral leader and ensure that the next generation can thrive here on Earth."

Now that's a foreign policy I can get behind.