When war broke out between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, Mark Simakovsky was a largely unnoticed junior Pentagon staffer, but the 28-year-old became a key policy adviser virtually overnight when he was called upon to provide timely information and insights to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top government officials.
As country director for Georgia in the office of the secretary of defense, Simakovsky used his expert knowledge and contacts to quickly gather information about developments on the ground, share it with high-level decision-makers and provide advice on the complicated set of issues that sparked the conflict.
“Mark led a briefing with Secretary Gates, who was so impressed with the reporting that he told Mark to keep sending them along,” said Dan Fata, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO.
Fata said Simakovsky was the first person at the Pentagon and possibly in the government to identify and report on what turned out to be the opening moves of the war, and then volunteered to stay at his post around-the-clock for several days to monitor developments.
Fata described how Simakovsky kept track of events, handled numerous tasks, and operated on pure adrenalin. He said Simakovsky clearly demonstrated he was “the Georgia expert at the Pentagon.”
“History books will never show his role, but Secretary Gates and I know what it was,” Fata said.
During the conflict, Simakovsky helped manage the Defense Department’s response to the fast-moving developments, coordinated the return of 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq back to Georgia, and supported efforts to ensure the security and safety of Defense Department employees on the ground.
Mary Warlick, currently U.S. ambassador to Serbia, said Simakovsky helped manage Georgian expectations regarding the U. S. response during the crisis and took the lead in formulating U.S.-Georgia bilateral defense policy after the conflict.
“If you are looking for the next generation of great leaders, he is at the top,” said Warlick. “Secretary Gates has a lot of trust in him.”
Simakovsky said it was challenging dealing with a sensitive foreign policy matter and trying to “identify a way that our interests in the region are best promoted.” He said the opportunity to contribute in this delicate task was possible due to the support of his colleagues and supervisors at the Defense Department and at other key U.S. agencies.
In August 2008, after an extended period of mounting tensions and incidents between Russian-backed separatists and the Georgian government, heavy fighting erupted in the separatist region of South Ossetia. The fighting, which lasted five days, quickly extended to other parts of Georgia as Russian forces pushed deep into that country.
The conflict strained the U.S.-Russia relationship. Secretary Gates and other U.S. officials urged both Russia and Georgia to return to their respective pre-conflict military positions and to refrain from aggressive posturing.
Simakovsky continues to support the Department of Defense and interagency partners with policy advice on how to shape U.S. assistance to Georgia and promote Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic reform efforts.
Simakovsky developed his expertise during his study at Georgetown University and sharpened his first-hand knowledge as a Fulbright Scholar in Georgia from 2005 to 2006 and by traveling throughout the region during the past seven years.
The young Pentagon staffer said his understanding of the region, personal experiences and connections were “worth their weight in gold” when the crisis unfolded. Simakovsky previously served as a Presidential Management Fellow in the State Department Office of Russian Affairs, which provided him a broader perspective of government and the need for strong cooperation among interagency counterparts.
The son of immigrants from the Soviet Union, Simakovsky grew up speaking Russian at home. His parents emigrated from Leningrad to the United States in 1976 as refugees.
Simakovsky said a career in public service has been a dream since childhood. He said he views working for the government as an opportunity to “contribute and give back to the country that has given my family everything, particularly opportunity and freedom.”
“The Russia-Georgia war was a formative experience for me. It reaffirmed my belief in the need for U.S. leadership and engagement in Eurasia. Crisis breeds both risk and opportunity, and I hope I have the honor to continue to support the development of U.S. defense and security policy for years to come.”