It took the Red Army -- excuse me, the Russian army -- only two days to secure Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now Russia is pressing its attacks into the heart of Georgia, threatening to cut the major east-west highway and vital oil pipeline. Moscow’s ultimate goal remains unclear, but it may well be to topple the democratically elected government of President Mikheil Saakashvili and replace him with a pro-Kremlin stooge. That is what the Russians did in Chechnya in 1999-2000.
The difference is that, while Chechnya had aspirations of nationhood, Georgia has already achieved it. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, it has been a fully sovereign country. More recently, as a result of the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has become a democracy -- admittedly an imperfect democracy, but with far greater rule of law than Russia. By crossing Georgia’s borders, the Russians have committed their worst violation of international law since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
At a time like this, it is vital for the leaders of the West to stand together and make clear that this aggression will not stand. This is no time for weaselly statements of moral equivalence claiming that Georgia brought this war on itself or that Russia’s response is merely “disproportionate” -- as if there were a “proportionate” level of aggression that would be justified. Whatever the details of the clash that began last week between Georgia and the breakaway, pro-Russia province of South Ossetia, there can be no excuse for Russia’s invasion. The presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland were on the mark in their demand that “aggression against a small country in Europe ... not be passed over in silence or with meaningless statements equating the victims with the victimizers.”
The more hysterical excuses that Moscow makes for its aggression are particularly creepy. Pravda accuses Saakashvili of committing “war crimes against humanity” and claims that Russia had no choice but to protect its citizens in South Ossetia from a “savage, brutal, criminal attack” by “the back-stabbing Georgians.” There are echoes here of German spokesmen from the 1930s shedding crocodile tears over the supposed mistreatment of German minorities in nearby states. Those were the excuses that Hitler used to swallow Czechoslovakia and Poland.
The Nazi analogy may appear overwrought. Certainly no one is claiming that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is another Hitler, a uniquely evil and reckless madman. But Putin does appear to have more than a passing resemblance to lesser autocrats such as Mussolini and the Japanese generals of the 1930s whose aggression nevertheless had tragic repercussions. Indeed, two other historical analogies that come to mind are the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Both set the stage for World War II by revealing the impotence of the League of Nations and the unwillingness of the great powers to respond forcefully to aggression.
Likewise, the Russian attacks on Georgia, if left unchecked, could easily trigger more conflict in the future. The Kremlin has embarked on a campaign to destabilize not just pro-Western Georgia but other former Soviet satrapies that refuse to toe its line. Many of these states have their own Russian minorities whose alleged maltreatment provides the perfect excuse for Russian meddling. Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?
If there is one thing that has limited Russian action against the Baltic states to cyber-attacks, economic pressure and verbal bullying, it is that these countries are now part of NATO. NATO’s refusal to give Georgia a “membership action plan” earlier this year was a blunder that emboldened Russian aggression. That is a mistake that urgently needs to be rectified.
The West must demand that Russia withdraw its troops from all of Georgia’s soil, possibly to be replaced in South Ossetia and Abkhazia with international peacekeepers. If the Kremlin won’t comply, the West should respond with sanctions such as withdrawing ambassadors from Moscow, kicking Russia out of the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations and freezing Russian bank accounts abroad
We should also do more to help Georgia defend itself. Sending American troops is out of the question, but we can send American equipment. That’s what we did in 1973 when Israel appeared on the verge of losing the Yom Kippur War, and it is a favor we should extend to our embattled ally in the Caucasus. The greatest bang for the buck would come from two inexpensive hand-held missiles: the Stinger to destroy Russian aircraft and the Javelin to destroy tanks. Pictures of long columns of Russian vehicles advancing slowly down winding mountain roads indicate that a few well-placed missiles could wreak havoc with their operations.
Many will claim that such steps are needlessly “provocative” and that the fate of Georgia is inconsequential beside the larger imperative of maintaining good relations with Russia. We have heard such talk before. The world failed in the 1930s to rally to the defense of small states such as Ethiopia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Finland when they were menaced by larger predators. The statesman of the time calculated that the cost of action was too high. What we learned in retrospect was that the cost of inaction was far higher. That is a lesson we should heed today.
Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion and the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.