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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Is Bad for Russia Is Again Good for U.S.

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During the turmoil after the Soviet collapse, a woman got through to Paul Harvey, a prominent U.S. radio show host, to say that she hoped the fighting in Georgia would not spill over into her home state of Florida.

How did the United States get from then, when most of us knew nothing about Georgia, to now, when our hopes for the spread of democracy seem pinned on the survival of a corrupt and authoritarian regime? It was a slow process, but in the end, Washington finds itself hoping for the survival of an U.S.-educated leader who has suspended civil rights and suppressed the media.

Empathy for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's predicament leads some Americans to withhold judgment on his draconian choices in this difficult hour. But that same understanding is absent in the press and government for the difficulties faced by President Vladimir Putin in his equally challenging situation. Throughout the years of conflict in Chechnya, Russian complaints that Georgia harbored foreign terrorists fell on deaf ears in the West.

It's certainly understandable and justified that the United States would consider its own national interests first when dealing with Georgia or Russia, but the truth is that the U.S. attitude toward the region too easily falls into the tired Cold War paradigm of "what is bad for Russia is good for the United States."

When I served in Moscow, many U.S. officials complained that Russia treated the bilateral relationship with a "zero-sum" approach. But U.S. actions in Georgia and the Caucasus reflect that same zero-sum mentality. For example, U.S. support for new oil pipelines from the Caspian through Georgia is characterized in terms of "diversification" and "energy security." Even though there is only so much energy coming from the region, oil flowing through Georgia means oil not flowing through Russia.

U.S. leaders believe that the best partner in the region would be a liberal democracy, but they know that neither Georgia nor Russia is headed in that direction. In geo-strategic terms, Georgia is important to the United States only because it offers access into the oil-rich Caspian and Central Asian realms -- access that bypasses Russian control. In the end, the United States really doesn't care to understand much more about the intricacies of the region than the woman on the radio show. Washington will continue to support an authoritarian regime in Georgia that cannot harm the United States because it remains suspicious of an authoritarian regime in Russia, which can. Zero-sum math is something we are comfortable with.

Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, a senior fellow at Harvard University, is former U.S. defense attache to Russia.