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Tensions High as NATO Suspends Formal Contacts with Russia Over Georgia Conflict

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Tensions are high between the United States and Russia over the ongoing conflict in Georgia. On Wednesday, soon after NATO foreign ministers decided to cut formal ties with Russia until it withdrew all its troops from Georgia, President Bush vowed to continue to support Georgia. We speak with William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move now to our next segment. This is an international segment on what’s happening between Russia and Georgia. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tensions are high between the United States and Russia over the ongoing conflict in Georgia. On Wednesday, soon after NATO foreign ministers decided to cut formal ties with Russia until it withdrew all of its troops from Georgia, President Bush vowed to continue to support Georgia.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Alliance agreed to help Georgia by sending NATO teams to assess the country’s needs and by forming a new NATO-Georgia Commission. The United States of America will continue to support Georgia’s democracy. Our military will continue to provide needed humanitarian aid to the Georgian people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Bush was speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. Russian officials, however, continued to accuse Georgia of aggression and criticized the creation of the NATO-Georgia cooperation commission. The deputy chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said the commission would restore Georgia’s military capability.

    ANATOLY NOGOVITSYN: [translated] It is the second attempt, which we have been witnesses to, to solve the problem in this region, territorial and other ones, by force. We think that this kind of peacekeeping, when the aggressor is allowed to build up its strength again and has been generously provided with a wide variety of arms, this then becomes the key factor in provoking attempts for yet another blitzkrieg.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, the United States also signed a missile defense shield agreement with Poland Wednesday, despite anger and threats of retaliation from Moscow. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted that missile defense is “aimed at no one.”

    CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It is an agreement, of course, which will help us to respond to the threats of the twenty-first century. It is an agreement that deepens the defense cooperation between Poland and the United States. It does so, of course, in the context of our great alliance with NATO and our Article 5 commitments to one another in that alliance. It will help both the alliance and Poland and the United States respond to the coming threats.

AMY GOODMAN: William Hartung is director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation here in New York, previously director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute at New School University. He joins us in our firehouse studio.

What is your assessment of what’s happening? Give us a history, a narrative, that you think we are not getting in the mainstream press right now about how this all began.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, it really began in the 1990s. First, when Georgia became independent of the Soviet Union, they basically moved into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which had had autonomy under the Soviet system, tried to reunite them with Georgia. There were then wars fought to set up the current situation, which is sort of de facto autonomy for those areas. And then the United States sort of stoked the flames by expanding NATO right up to the borders of Russia. And that was after a pledge by James Baker to Gorbachev that that would not happen. So I think that is some of the background. So there’s really blame to go on all sides. It’s not just a Republican issue; it’s also a failure of Democratic policies of the ’90s.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in recent op-ed pieces, both Mikhail Gorbachev and President Sarkozy of France have highlighted the fact that Georgia did begin an aggression against South Ossetia, moved its troops in there before the Russian invasion. Your assessment of how important that was in triggering these events?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think if that hadn’t happened, none of this would have happened. And I think Georgia felt that it could do that because of the rhetorical support from the United States, not just the Bush administration, but John McCain, who’s a personal friend of the Georgian leader. His key foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, had been a paid lobbyist for the Georgian government. They had been pushing for Georgia to join NATO. So I think it was a miscalculation that, well, if I go in there, the US is going to back me up. So I think there’s some responsibility of some of the more strident supporters of Georgia joining NATO in this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Mikhail Gorbachev had a very interesting editorial, as Juan mentioned. And he said, “The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing — before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader’s deceptive statements.

“It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr. Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter,” said Mikhail Gorbachev. He said, “What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace.”

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think that’s clearly the case. I mean, you could imagine if Russia was arming and training Canada to be able to invade us or Mexico, you know, this country would be off the charts in terms of some sort of military response. But yet, Russia has been encircled by NATO, by this plan for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, by bases on its southern flank that have come out of the war in Afghanistan, by this notion of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. So from Moscow’s point of view, there’s been a one-sided —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the missile defense. Explain what’s happening in Poland and the Czech Republic. Now, this is against the wishes of the people of both Poland and the Czech Republic, right? The polls have shown they’re overwhelmingly opposed to this.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: The majorities of both countries have been against this. And although Secretary of State Rice has tried to portray this as a defensive measure, it’s got offensive implications. First of all, it’s been a way to kind of gin up a scare campaign against Iran, as if they had missiles that could reach that part of the world, which they don’t, nor do they have nuclear weapons at the moment.

But also, from Russia’s point of view, although it’s only ten interceptors now, once they’ve got a foothold in Poland, they can build as many as they want. And a missile defense basically can be an adjunct to a first strike. You strike first, and then you use the missile defense as sort of a backup. So, Russia, I think legitimately, is concerned about this, and Rice has tried to sort of just wave it away as some sort of paranoia on their part.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to turn to Senator Obama on Georgia— and US-Russian relations. This is what he said Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: For months, I’ve called for active international engagement to resolve the disputes over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I’ve made it crystal clear before, at the beginning of and during this conflict, that Georgia’s territorial integrity must be respected and that Georgia should be integrated into the trans-Atlantic institutions.

    I’ve condemned Russian aggression, and today I reiterate my demand that Russia abide by the ceasefire. Russia must know that its actions will have consequences. They will imperil the civil nuclear agreement and Russia’s standing in the international community, including the NATO Russia council and Russia’s desire to participate in organizations like the WTO and the OECD.

    And finally, we must help Georgia rebuild that which has been destroyed. That is why I’m proud to join my friend, Senator Joe Biden, in calling for an additional $1 billion in reconstruction assistance for the people of Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Senator McCain appeared to make a gaffe when he claimed he doesn’t support the right of nations to invade other nations.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I want to have a dialogue with the Russians. I want them to get out of Georgian territory as quickly as possible. And I am interested in good relations between the United States and Russia. But in the twenty-first century, nations don’t invade other nations.

AMY GOODMAN: William Hartung, your response?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, maybe he doesn’t know that it’s the twenty-first century, because, obviously, the United States has invaded Iraq. He was a big supporter of that. So this notion that it’s just not done is absurd.

Unfortunately, Senator Obama, although he’s not talking about invasions — he’s not as strident in his rhetoric — basically is saying, you know, NATO should expand perhaps into Georgia, Russia should be isolated. So, on paper, although the rhetoric is different, he really hasn’t taken substantively a different enough position, from my point of view.

We should be talking about freezing NATO expansion. We should be talking about whether those missiles should go into Poland. There’s got to be some give and take here. It can’t just be, you know, rhetoric and actions against Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the significance of Randy Scheunemann, the top aide to John McCain, who got that $200,000 from Georgia? He is registered as a paid lobbyist for Georgia.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think, you know, this is part of what made it possible for this war to happen. You know, to have a key presidential candidate with a guy who’s basically so cozy with the Georgian leader, I think, just underscored his notion that, well, the US is behind me. And, of course, one of the lessons of Iraq should have been, people like Scheunemann, who supported that war, should never be allowed near the levers of power ever again. And I think his role has to be highlighted as the campaign goes forward.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.

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