If Russia did "behave passively with regard to the conflict," such passive behavior hardly indicated Russian good will toward the U.S. For, as the prominent Russian pundit, Vyacheslav Nikonov, personally told me - during private conversations in St. Petersburg in 2004 and 2005 - "From a humanitarian point of view, we all would like to see a rapid termination of America's war against Iraq. But, from the perspective of Russia's national interests, America's invasion has benefited Russia in three ways: (1) By raising the price of oil, which Russia exports, (2) by drawing terrorists away from Chechnya to Iraq and (3) by sinking the U.S. military in a quagmire, thus limiting the possibilites of U.S. mischief elsewhere in the world." (That is not an exact quote, but its captures the essence of our conversations)
But recent talk about playing a diplomatic Iraq card suggested that prominent Russians no longer subscribed to Mr. Nikonov's point of view. Yet, little in the Russian discussion suggested that, when Russia played its Iraq card, it would do so militarily and not diplomatically.
In a cogently argued article in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books -- one that actually understates the long list of legitimate Russian grievences against U.S duplicity - George Friedman of Stratfor cites U.S. meddling in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" and America's recognition of the independence of Kosovo as the two main reasons motivating Russia's decision to exercise its Iraq card militarily, by invading Georgia.
"From the Ukrainian experience, the Russians became convinced that the United States was engaged in a plan of strategic encirclement and strangulation of Russia. From the Kosovo experience, they concluded that the United States and Europe were not prepared to consider Russian wishes even in fairly minor affairs. This was the breaking point."
And although Friedman makes it quite clear that Georgia actually started the war (by bombing the civilian population of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia while they were asleep in their beds), he suspects "Russia had laid a trap, hoping for a Georgian invasion to justify its own counterattack."
By invading Georgia, Putin played his Iraq card. What does that mean? As Mr. Friedman puts it: "While the United States is tied down in the Middle East, American guarantees have no value. The lesson is not for American consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point of view, the Ukrainians, the Balts, and the Central Asians need to digest. Indeed it's a lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the Czech Republic as well."
"The more vocal senior U.S. leaders are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk." After all, not only is the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, Russia is quite more difficult to intimidate than most countries, given that it alone possesses a nuclear arsenal capable of obliterating most of America's major cities within an hour's notice.
Thus, while blowhard John McCain spins fables about his unique ability to capture Osama bin Laden and touts his so-called superior national security experience and knowledge, the Taliban in Afghanistan, al Qaeda in Pakistan and, now, the Russians in Georgia, have exposed the strategic stupidity of his obsession with keeping most of America's military forces tied down in Iraq. One can only speculate which country will next play the Iraq card to America's detriment.