Here are a few things that are not especially relevant in assessing the situation in Georgia today.
1) Whether the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was reckless and provocative in attempting to retake control over the separatist-minded provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, given Russian sponsorship of both.
2) Whether the West humiliated Russia in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, specifically by recognizing the secession of Kosovo from Serbia earlier this year over Moscow’s objections.
3) Whether the Bush administration was unduly confrontational in proposing Georgia for membership in NATO at last spring’s Bucharest summit — or, for that matter, whether the Germans and French signalled weakness by opposing its entry.
4) Whether the United States and its allies are hypocrites for opposing Russia’s invasion of Georgia as behaviour incompatible with 21st century states, having bombed Serbia and invaded Iraq within the last decade.
These explanations of events, repeated in dozens of newspaper op-eds and magazine articles since the Russians invaded, may be true. Or they may be untrue. But what all of them overlook is one rather salient fact: Georgia is a sovereign, independent country. Whatever its internal disputes, whatever its external alliances, whatever the West’s strategic blunders or moral blinders, they do not justify Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Gori, Poti and other Georgian cities. One country, and one country alone, bears responsibility for this invasion. That country is Russia.
Sovereignty is not the only principle that matters, of course. It would be one thing if, as the Russians claim, the Georgians had been pursuing a genocidal war in the renegade provinces —indiscriminate slaughter, widespread atrocities — as Serbia had been, for example, in Kosovo. (Or, if you prefer, the Russians in Chechnya.) Foreign intervention might then be justified in humanitarian terms, as indeed would the secession, in international law. But there is no evidence of this. Human Rights Watch observers on the ground say they have seen no signs of war crimes on this scale; indeed, they are more worried that such wild tales could lead to reprisals against ethnic Georgians.
So this is not Kosovo, to deal with one facile comparison. Neither is it remotely comparable to Iraq. To name only a few of the more obvious discrepancies, the Saakashvili government has not invaded or attacked five of its neightbours; it has not started two major wars, or caused the death of millions of people; it has not hosted or sponsored nearly every major international terrorist group; it has not defied 17 resolutions of the Security Council, each one backed by the threat of force; it has not corrupted a United Nations sanctions regime, nor blocked its arms inspectors, nor bribed high officials in member states; it has not developed, or tried to, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, nor has it used them on its own or other countries’ citizens; it is not a bestial dictatorship, whose people would be only too happy to see it gone. It is, in fact, a popularly elected, pro-Western, democratic government: imperfect as democracies go, but a paragon by the standards of the region — certainly when compared to the Medvedev/Putin thugocracy that runs Russia.
So the real question is not, how dare the Bush administration raise a stink over Georgia after what they did in Iraq, but why are the critics of the American invasion of Iraq so willing to give a free pass to the Russians in Georgia? The Americans, it is true, failed to obtain that 18th Security Council resolution. The Russians didn’t even bother with one. (But then, they never do. Nor, in fact, has any other power — France, China, Britain, let us not speak of Germany and Japan — when it wanted to invade somewhere. The United States is the only country in history to ask the UN’s permission to go to war.) The Americans liberate Iraq from Saddam, and all around the world the streets are filled with protests. The Russians do their best to destabilize a popularly-elected government, and the only sound you hear is crickets.
BUT THEN, even that’s more or less beside the point. The most urgent question before us is not who to blame for Russia’s latest act of aggression, but how to prevent the next. For clearly the Russians had, and have, larger goals in mind here than merely defending the independence of South Ossetia. The notion that we should treat this as a one-off — that we should, as my Maclean’s colleague Paul Wells blithely suggests, cut Georgia adrift, or at any rate those parts of Georgia now occupied by Russia and its secessionist clients — is not one shared by, for example, the leaders of Ukraine, Poland, or the Baltic countries, all of whom hurried to Tbilisi to demonstrate their solidarity. They see their fates as intertwined with Georgia’s, because, they suspect, so does Russia. If its aim in the present engagement was to eliminate a troublesome democratic ruler on its doorstep, it’s been clear for some time that Russia finds any democratic neighbour troublesome: witness its attempts to tilt elections in Ukraine, its cyber-bombing of Estonia, its blackmail of western Europe with the threat of cutting off the supply of oil and gas through the pipelines it controls.
The public rationale for Russian intervention in Georgia, as the Russian Foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, emphasized repeatedly in an op-ed for the Financial Times, was the defence of Russian “citizens” there. He did not mention that they were citizens only by way of a concerted policy of adoption — over the last few years, Russian passports have been handed out in the breakaway regions like souvenir t-shirts. But if that’s the test, well, there are large numbers of Russian citizens in Ukraine and the Baltics, too. How long might it be before some similarly trumped up “crisis” spurs Russia to come to their aid?
Relax, says friend Wells. If Putin sends the tanks rolling into Warsaw or Riga, “fight him then.” But wouldn’t it be better if it didn’t come to that? Isn’t the point of collective defence to make it clear to any potential aggressor that force will be met with force — so clear as to prevent the initial use of force from ever arising? To be sure, the West failed to make its intentions clear in the present case, or perhaps made these all too clear when it balked at Georgia’s NATO bid. But having done so, do we, in effect, reward Putin for calling our bluff by giving him a free hand in Georgia? Or do we make it clear, albeit after the fact, that there will be consequences — if not sufficient to drive him out of Georgia, then at least to deter him from trying the same elsewhere? And if we are agreed on the latter course, is not the best and most direct way of making our point to admit both Georgia and Ukraine forthwith?
Make no mistake — Putin’s gambit was as much aimed at NATO as at anyone else. He doesn’t need to sense NATO’s weakness: it’s as plain as day. The alliance was just barely able to keep it together in the decades after the Second World War, when the issue was the defence of western Europe. But the further it has ventured beyond its original mandate, the shakier its collective resolve has become. (Read Gen. Lewis MacKenzie’s blistering recent piece in the Globe and Mail on the failure of our NATO partners to come to our aid in Afghanistan.) At a stroke, Putin has exploited NATO divisions over Georgia, exposed them, and — he hopes — exacerbated them.
Faced with this challenge, we have two options. We can abandon any expansion of NATO beyond its present membership, as Russia demands. Or we can press on, understanding that we have a stake in the survival and success of democracy in the East, and that if we cannot democratize Russia we can at least contain its influence. Friend Wells advises against admitting Georgia, or at least Georgia intact, on the grounds that it is involved in “a border dispute,” endorsing German chancellor Angela Merkel’s view that NATO should not be dragged into every one of the myriad ethnic boundary conflicts that pervade that part of the world.
But in fact there is no dispute over Georgia’s borders, or not with Russia: no country in the world, not even Russia, has formally recognized the breakaway states, governed as they are by a mix of Russian intelligence officers and local crime bosses. In any event, it is an odd thing for a German chancellor, of all people, to reject extending NATO’s defences to countries involved in border disputes. I seem to recall the former West Germany, though a member of NATO, spent more than four decades embroiled in a border dispute. It was called the Berlin Wall.