A Clarion Call on Russia

A brilliant editorial in the Washington Post:

THE OUTBREAK of fighting between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia was sudden but not surprising. Conflict has been brewing between Moscow and its tiny, pro-Western neighbor for months. The flashpoints are two breakaway Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia — the latter being the scene of the latest fighting. The skirmishing and shelling around Georgian villages that prompted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to launch an offensive against the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, may or may not have been a deliberate Russian provocation, to which Russia’s tank and air assault was the inevitable follow-up.

Russian military probes, always denied b y Moscow, have been frequent in recent years. But certainly the deeper source of tension between the two countries is Russia’s insistence on maintaining hegemony in the Caucasus. Georgia’s democratically elected government has accepted U.S. military and economic aid, supported the mission in Iraq and pursued NATO membership. Moscow will not tolerate such independence — even by a relatively poor country of just 4.6 million people.

At its summit in Bucharest, Romania, in April, NATO offered Georgia eventual membership. This was not the more concrete promise that Georgia and the Bush administration had wanted. But Tbilisi and Washington settled for less in deference to European NATO members who wanted to avoid inflaming Russia. It didn’t work, because Moscow responded by increasing its ties to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including by beefing up the “peacekeeping” forces it maintains in both regions under the settlement that concluded Moscow-backed secessionist wars in the early 1990s. Even before these latest maneuvers, Russia had issued passports to most inhabitants of the two breakaway regions, which is why it claims to be defending its own people now.

It’s doubtful, though not unthinkable, that Russia plans to conquer all of Georgia. But its objectives are no less cynical for that. Simply by keeping the country in a constant state of territorial division and conflict, it hopes to show NATO that Georgia is too unstable for membership — thus giving Georgia no choice but to submit to Moscow’s “influence.” Probably Russia intends to administer a quick military “punishment” (as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described Moscow’s war aim) to Mr. Saakashvili, and then restore some version of the unstable status quo ante.

This is a grave challenge to the United States and Europe. Ideally, the U.N. Security Council would step in, authorizing a genuine peacekeeping force to replace the Russian one that has turned into a de facto occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But a Russian veto rules that out. Thus, the United States and its NATO allies must together impose a price on Russia if it does not promptly change course.

The principles at stake, including sovereignty and territorial integrity, apply well beyond the Caucasus. To abandon Georgia and its fragile democratic Rose Revolution would send a terrible signal to other former Soviet and Warsaw Pact republics that to Moscow’s dismay have achieved or are working toward democracy and fully independent foreign policies. The West has made that sort of mistake before and must not do so again.

The world was warned by Richard Holbrooke more than two years ago.  Maybe now at last it will listen.

One response to “A Clarion Call on Russia

  1. http://www.jamestown.org/edm/article.php?article_id=2373298
    …The goals behind Moscow’s operation are threefold, each with its own time frame. The immediate goal is to re-establish the authority of Russian-controlled negotiating and “peacekeeping” formats. By firing on Georgian positions unremittingly and escalating the intensity of the fire with every passing day, Moscow hopes to force Georgia to turn to those Russian-controlled formats to relieve the pressure. Furthermore, Moscow wants to force Tbilisi to acknowledge a leading Russian role as “guarantor” of an eventual political settlement.

    Moscow’s next goal, on a timeframe overlapping with the first, is to capture Georgian-controlled villages in South Ossetia. The pattern of attacks since August 6 indicate the intent to reduce the Sanakoyev administration’s territory to insignificance or even remove it from South Ossetia altogether. If successful, this undertaking may well be replicated in upper Abkhazia by Russian and proxy forces attempting to evict authorities loyal to Tbilisi.

    The strategic political goal is to dissuade NATO from approving a membership action plan (MAP) for Georgia at the alliance’s December 2008 or April 2009 meetings. More immediately, Moscow seeks to derail the North Atlantic Council’s assessment visit to Georgia, scheduled for September, or at least to influence the visit’s assessment about Georgia’s eligibility for a MAP. Since NATO’s “Russia-Firsters” insist that unresolved conflicts disqualify Georgia from a MAP, Russia seeks to demonstrate that those conflicts are indeed unresolved. NATO’s failure to approve a Georgian MAP at the April 2008 summit emboldened Russia to escalate military operations against Georgia.

    Moscow also seeks to bleed Georgia economically through protracted military operations. Russia can not tolerate the successful economic performance of a Western-oriented government on Russia’s border. Aware, furthermore, that Georgia’s government is accountable to public opinion, Moscow seeks to force the government to choose between yielding at the risk of a domestic backlash or, alternatively, fighting back in a costly confrontation

    Resemblances with the Russian interventions in the early 1990s in Transnistria and Abkhazia are unmistakable. In that scenario, the Russian media create a hysterical, brink-of-war atmosphere, portraying the small country targeted for attack as a dangerous aggressor. Russian-armed proxy troops, already in place on the target country’s territory, attack localities and seats of authority. Cossacks and North Caucasus “volunteers” are sent in. Russian officials can claim that the attackers act on their own, outside Moscow’s control. Russian military intelligence coordinates the operation, while air and ground forces provide cover and would intervene directly if the target country defends itself. In the final stage of this scenario, Russian “peacekeepers” perpetuate the gains achieved on the ground. Throughout the crisis, most Western governments are confused and react irrelevantly by urging restraint on “both sides,” ultimately tolerating the Russian faits accomplis.

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