Prior to coming to law school, I worked as a defense contractor as part of a business development team. Business development is the industry's fancy term for mixing sales and marketing with odd ball project management work. I spent a significant portion of my time pursuing sales opportunities in the Middle East and elsewhere. If there was a dramatic change in government, then my employer wanted to be there to offer assistance. Following the Arab Spring, it was an aggressive business model, but, more importantly, it kept our team engaged in areas that truly needed help. I have taken a taxi cab ride by a couple US embassies as they’ve been stoned. My brief time in an industry that subsists on conflict, or at the very least the threat of conflict, cultivated an appreciation for living in the United States. Most of the countries where I worked tended to face common security challenges. Most often, the threat was an organized insurgency, often aggravated or augmented by an organized criminal element. Usually our potential government customers were in a position of relative strength, at least in terms of resources and assets. Though superior resources often does not mean victory is assured. Through my experiences and long conversations with my international colleagues, I came to view conflict through a certain lens. As I talk with my Georgian colleagues, my perception of conflict is changing yet again.
On July 10th, the Russian Occupational force in South Ossetia, a disputed region in Georgia, moved border markers one kilometer into Georgian controlled territory. As a result, by this time next year over a hundred Georgian households will join thousands of Georgians displaced by prior conflict, often as a result of actions influenced by Georgia’s aggressive and powerful neighbor to the north. In the face of the violence of Ukraine, I think folks may view the movement of sign posts in the early morning hours as relatively benign. I doubt the Georgian contingents of voluntary fighters in Ukraine would appreciate the sentiment. And it is true that Russia is not encouraging the citizens of South Ossetia, a poor region entirely under Russian control, to build settlements or exploit the arable lands acquired. I know a few red blooded associates of mine may go so far as question why Georgia can’t secure its own territory. I believe the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 provides adequate justification for restraint, as the capital city of Tbilisi nearly fell into Russian hands in a matter of days. As Ukraine postures itself for NATO membership, Georgia has taken steps for years to seek admittance into the treaty organization, yet the country can’t quite seem to secure membership despite being a model member that participated in the US recent conflicts in Afghanistan.
Georgia faces a security challenge far different from anything I have encountered so far. Russia’s creeping invasion of a kilometer or two every couple of years is a slow and deliberate act of aggression relent entirely on the harsh reality that Georgia lacks the strength to resist the military might of its neighbor and the international community lacks clear authority to act. Even as the country seeks European Union Membership, Russia exerts a troubling influence over the politics of Georgia. Anti-European propaganda verges on the ridiculous, yet with Russian influence it resonates with many here. In recent history, Russia was Georgia’s principle energy supplier of natural gas, not unlike Ukraine. However, when Russian pipeline was “disrupted” one winter leaving the country without power or heat, Georgians quickly partnered with their neighbor Azerbaijan to achieve energy independence. A subsequent embargo of Georgia’s major exports (wine and fruit) left many struggling until the country could penetrate western markets. Where other countries have buckled to Russia’s aggressive use of “soft” power, Georgia has held firm. Today, the embargos have been lifted and Russia has induced many Georgians to depend once again on trade with the country’s largest neighbor; a relationship that makes many educated Georgians nervous.
As Americans, I believe many of us become accustomed to acting with relative impunity. If anything, the force of our actions radiates outwards, not necessarily for the better as evidenced by the recent financial crisis. Our country is empowered to take action. For the most part, we are safe and secure, as well as empowered and educated to steer the course of our own destiny. In part, our ancestors have worked hard to secure our freedom of choice. Though, geography and environment have a powerful effect as well. How well would the US fair if its border butted up against Russia or China? Would our inventive and self-expressive culture flourish in a smaller country? I am reminded of Jared Diamond’s environmental approach to history. Territory matters. Here, less than an hour away my colleagues, some of whom lost their homes to past acts of aggression, are losing something that I don’t believe can be simply measured in hectares. Their home is being slowly taken away from them and, not only are the powerless to stop it, the world doesn’t seem to care nearly enough.