There are widespread and unconfirmed rumors of Russian forces slipping into Ukraine’s Crimea region in the wake of mass protests that toppled the country’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
It’s arguably Europe’s greatest security crisis in a decade or more. The administration of U.S. Pres. Barack Obama has said that Russian military action in Ukraine would be a “grave mistake.” But that doesn’t mean the United States is likely to get involved.
The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 is a case study in American caution in the region.
Ukraine’s new acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has accused Russia of trying to bait Ukraine into a fight. Turchynov insisted that is what happened in Georgia in 2008.
But on Feb. 27, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had assured him that Moscow would respect Ukraine’s “territorial integrity.”
This may not make Ukrainians feel much better. On Aug. 15, 2008, then-U.S. president George W. Bush had also demanded the Russians respect Georgia’s boundaries. Russian troops had recently poured into the tiny republic, sparking a nine-day war that killed hundreds of people and forced Tbilisi to give up a fifth of its territory to de facto Russian administration.
The U.S. reportedly did consider a military response in August 2008, but ultimately settled for a far more passive role supporting and encouraging the Georgians. “I don't see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation,” then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said late in the fighting. “Is that clear enough?”
The transcript of Gates’ comment notes the Pentagon press corps’ laughter.
No U.S. troops ever rushed to help the embattled Georgians. NATO, which had been courting the country since 2005, also stayed out. On their own, Georgian troops stood little chance against the better-armed Russians.
Weirdly, America did have some troops in Georgia when the fighting started. They were there training Georgian troops for a deployment to Iraq. But the U.S. trainers avoided the fighting—even after Russian forces looted the Americans’ vehicles.
In the end, Washington provided civilian humanitarian assistance and also flew 1,800 Georgian troops back from Iraq in a futile attempt to reinforce Tbilisi’s battered army.
It’s unlikely that Ukraine has forgotten any of this. Ukraine’s support of Georgia in 2008 actually contributed to that crisis. The Georgia war in turn touched off a chain of events in Ukraine that brought Yanukovych to power. Today Yanukovych is effectively in exile in Russia, although he insists he’s still the rightful head of state.
U.S. policy doesn’t seem to have changed much in the intervening years. Obama’s decision not to launch air strikes against Syria last year indicates that American policymakers might be even more cautious now than they were five years ago.
Given all of this, Ukraine’s new leaders probably won’t wait for the U.S. to rescue them if the Russians do move into Crimea. But it’s also not clear what they would do—or could do—if the Russians march in.