Dick Cheney's whirlwind Caucasus tour, which began today, will be interpreted by conspiracy theorists, Kremlin apologists, and by the Russian government, as further "proof" of their contention that the hawkish US vice-president and his neocon buddies deliberately provoked last month's Georgia crisis for American presidential election campaign purposes.
The White House says Cheney will assess Georgia's future needs and study the broader implications of Russia's partitioning of the country when he meets President Mikhail Saakashvili in Tbilisi. The Bush administration was meanwhile due to announce a $1bn bilateral economic aid package to rebuild Georgia, in addition to an emergency $750m stand-by loan arranged via the IMF.
A senior administration official said Cheney and Saakashvili would study the implications of the crisis and discuss "a comprehensive long-term strategy by the international community to help Georgia recover, including the critical task of supporting the democratic choice of the Georgian people to integrate further with Euro-Atlantic institutions, including Nato". That means, among other things, continuing and possibly increased US military aid.
This statement should give pause to the architect of Russia's invasion, prime minister Vladimir Putin. Having been rebuffed earlier this year by France and Germany in its attempts to gather Georgia into Nato's fold, the Bush-Cheney team is now redoubling its efforts to bind the former Soviet republic to the west. If Europe won't help, the US will go it alone. Its powerful naval presence in the Black Sea is a token of this renewed and deepening commitment.
Putin's bullyboy behaviour has thus backfired. And it is likely to have a similar effect in terms of closer US relations with oil-rich Azerbaijan and a rattled Ukraine, where Cheney will also visit. Thanks to the Russian leader, Christmas has come early for the ageing cold warrior who is rapidly approaching enforced retirement. Cheney now looks less like a visiting dignitary and more like a general inspecting frontline positions.
Cheney's contention that Russia represents a threat that must be confronted and contained has been given a new lease on life by Putin's putsch. Those in Moscow and in Europe who hope to increase a modernising, reforming Russia's engagement with international institutions and international crisis management have suffered a blow.
Cheney and Putin deserve each other. At bottom, both men are backward-looking holdovers from the past. Describing Putin, Paul Quinn-Judge writes in Christian Science Monitor, "he can best be characterised by the term 'sovok' … In this case, it can be summarised as someone who embodies the dark and circumscribed world view of the Soviet man in the street, suspicious of the outside world, resentful, who holds a grudge and remembers a slight. Putin speaks passionately about the 'tragedy' of the Soviet Union's collapse, a personally scarring time when he found himself unemployed."
Cheney doubtless feels the same about the way the protracted Iraq disaster (not South Ossetia) has blown an irreparable hole in his dream of an omnipotent, all-dominating unipolar American empire championing a one-size-fits-all global values system and underpinned by unmatched military might.
All the same, the suggestion that Cheney, making one last throw of the geo-strategic dice, actually engineered the South Ossetia crisis by effectively luring innocent, unwary Russian armed forces into a Georgian bear-trap does not bear close examination. The fact that Putin, and his front man, President Dmitri Medvedev, continue to claim that the whole plot was hatched in Washington to boost John McCain's campaign does not make it true.
The sobering truth is, the bumbling, blinkered Cheney is not that clever.
It is certainly the case that the US provided military trainers and instructors to the Georgian military and has done so since the 2003 Rose revolution. It also provided military equipment and logistical assistance to help Georgia build up its defences and prepare for a Nato membership bid. Although Moscow may not have liked it, there was little that was clandestine about this US policy.
And in any case, Russia continued to keep its troops on Georgian territory under a spurious peacekeeping banner, tolerating and in all probability abetting all manner of provocations launched by South Ossetian separatist militia.
It is also the case that a McCain adviser, Randy Scheunemann, acted as a Washington lobbyist for the Georgian government, although he apparently severed those ties in May. Scheunemann undoubtedly sympathised with Georgia's position vis a vis Russia. But lending a sympathetic ear or even urging a tough line is very different from persuading or inveigling Georgia's leadership into an unwinnable, costly and ultimately deeply humiliating military confrontation.
Even if you insist on believing Georgia was egged on into war by scheming Republican neocons, who may after all conveniently be blamed for most worldly ills, pause a moment to look at the resulting campaign fallout in the US. Has the Caucasus confrontation given a boost to McCain as the putative plotters hoped? It has not. So-called "cold war II" has been almost completely overshadowed by his nomination of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
In short, cheerleader trumped war-maker. Faced by Miss Congeniality, "Commie dude Putin", as columnist Maureen Dowd calls him, had no chance. Palin is probably a better shot, too – certainly better than Cheney.
Saakashvili may be a hot-head. But he has not survived as long as he has in a tough neighbourhood by acting stupid at the behest of people like Cheney. "Some months ago I was warned by western leaders to expect an attack this summer," he told Melik Kaylan in a Wall Street Journal interview last month.
As related by James Traub in the New York Times, the months leading up to the August conflagration saw escalating provocations by South Ossetian forces and the Russian air force to which the Georgians responded, usually proportionately. During this period the US state department, anxious to avoid an escalation, repeatedly told Saakashvili to keep his cool.
But in hindsight, it seems Putin was just biding his time until the moment came when Georgia overreacted. When it eventually did, in early August, his military plan of campaign was ready, the troops, marines, planes and ships were on alert and within easy call, and he immediately flew back from the Olympics to take charge.
Saakashvili went on: "I ask everyone to consider, what does it mean when hundreds of tanks can mobilise and occupy a country within two days? Just the fuelling takes that long. They were on their way. Would we provoke a war while all our western friends are away on vacation? Be sensible."