Writing in the News & Observer David S. Siroky, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Duke University who left Georgia at the end of July after researching the secessionist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, says “we must thwart Russia.”
Levan, a gregarious Georgian wrestling champion cum grocery security guard, always asked me the same questions, although he knew the answers: “First time in Georgia? How long will you stay?” Before I could reply, he would interrupt — “That’s too long … Russia will invade any day.”
Levan was right — I left just in time. Russia’s warplanes are bombing Georgian airports, airfields and cities, as well as the Black Sea ports from which energy shipments depart to the West.
Russia and Georgia are now at war over South Ossetia, an ethnically mixed separatist region of roughly 60,000 people that abuts Russia’s southern border. While the West decides what to do, bombs are falling, tanks are firing and civilians are dying.
This matters to Americans. Georgia is an important ally — the third-largest contributor to coalition forces in Iraq Georgia is also a key player in the Caucasus, a region emerging at a time of rising energy prices as an essential transit route between the energy-rich Caspian Sea and Western markets.
Russia has long been irritated by Georgia’s desire to join NATO. In April, after NATO representatives suggested this would happen someday, Russia reacted with sorties over Georgian airspace, economic embargoes on Georgian goods and official diplomatic exchanges with Georgia’s breakaway regions. Now it has expressed its displeasure even more dramatically.
Russian forces have been a prominent part of the peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and their presence is one of the key factors behind the fighting that has erupted. Russians in South Ossetia possess a peacekeeping mandate in theory, but in practice they are parties to the conflict, siding with the separatists. Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations says the separatists are controlled directly by Russia, which is allegedly sending armaments through a tunnel that connects Georgia’s South Ossetia with the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania.
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THE UNITED STATES IS NOT ABOUT TO GET INTO A SHOOTING WAR WITH RUSSIA. But we can make clear we are serious about supporting a strategically located ally of 4.5 million people. We must not turn a blind eye to the provocations of the puppet government in South Ossetia or, more significantly, to those of Russia, whose population is 30 times larger than Georgia’s and whose territory is 240 times bigger.
Most fundamentally, we must support Georgia’s territorial integrity. Doing so will not only help the people there but also will serve our own security, economic and energy interests in the region. Specifically, the United States should push to replace the Russian CIS “peacekeepers” with more international, impartial forces. Forces from the Russian Commonwealth of Independent States cannot act as honest brokers in this conflict. Only when they are replaced can tensions defuse and negotiations proceed.
Russia will resist this. It seeks to destabilize Georgia and thereby raise doubts about Georgia’s readiness to join NATO. Indeed, Georgia’s internal conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have already caused Germany and France to get cold feet. Together with NATO, the United States must counteract Russia’s efforts. As U.S. Sens. Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden have argued in a bipartisan way, our country needs to launch “[an] intensive international diplomatic counter-offensive.”
Russia cannot be allowed to punish Georgia for its defiant effort to join Western institutions, a message it clearly intends to send as well to other countries in the region that may want to join NATO. If the West fails to respond, Russia’s impunity will undermine our own long-term interests in the Caucasus, which could affect everything from the prices at our local gas pumps to our broader political and economic interests. Georgia needs staunch American support in this moment of crisis.
Levan liked to remind me as he guarded the grocery store that Russian supersonic jets can reach Georgia in 20 seconds. With much more time than that already elapsed since Russia launched its attack, I’m sure he and many others in Georgia are waiting to see whether the United States and other Western powers will respond as swiftly and decisively as the situation demands.