Writing in Commentary magazine (one of our family of commenters tipped us to the piece) Arthur Herman, the author most recently of Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, blows away the neo-Chamberlainian cowards who recklessly seek to rationalize Russian aggression in Georgia. There’s much more to the extended piece, click the link to read the rest. The critical point is that we here in the West have people are are willing to take Russia’s side in this dispute, and who can do so in the most lofty public venues. But where are the Russians who are able to take Georgia’s side in the mainstream Russian media? You will not find them, because they are censored and because they would be killed if they were not and dared to speak. Thus, Russia like the USSR before it languishes in ignorance, unable to reform and doomed to failure.
On September 1, the leaders of the European Union, having already warned Moscow several times of its obligation to meet the terms of the cease-fire agreement with Georgia, held an emergency meeting in Brussels and decided to—issue another warning. If Russia continues its non-compliance, the leaders threatened, another warning may yet follow.
Such are the pitiful realities of international diplomacy, and of an all too familiar Western pattern of response to acts of blatant aggression by powerful dictators. It is embarrassing enough when governments, with responsibility for the security of millions, resort to such hand-wringing hesitancy. It is worse when analysts and critics who are free to speak their minds on everything under the sun start looking for reasons to avoid placing blame for aggression squarely where it belongs—on the aggressors—and instead strive conspicuously to spread it around among the bystanders and even the victims.
Such was the response to Russia’s August 9 invasion of the pro-Western democracy of Georgia by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Under the title “What Did We Expect?,” Friedman dutifully awarded an Olympic-style gold medal for “brutal stupidity”—stupidity, not criminality—to Vladimir Putin, the man who actually sent in the troops and tanks. But then Friedman quickly went on to confer a silver medal for “bone-headed recklessness” on Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, whose country suffered the attack. The bronze for “short-sightedness” went, needless to say, to George W. Bush (shared, retroactively, with Bill Clinton).
Friedman’s reasoning went like this. By trying “to cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats,” the United States had mortally injured the feelings of the former superpower, a nation still smarting from defeat in the cold war. As if that were not provocation enough, Russia now confronts the prospect of former Soviet republics like Estonia, Ukraine, and Georgia joining the community of liberal democracies, and has also been asked to tolerate an anti-missile defense system the Bush administration wants to install across Eastern Europe. Offenses like these, Friedman wrote, had been “critical to fueling Putin’s rise” to power, and they all but ensured a crisis like the one with Georgia. Friedman’s views were echoed by, among others, former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who as much as told the United States it could expect worse if it undertook to provoke Putin and Russia again.
And in what had Saakashvili’s sin consisted? By daring to use military force to put down Russian-backed separatists in the breakaway Ossetian region, he, too, had supposedly compelled Putin to invade. The Economist, denouncing Saakashvili as “an impetuous nationalist,” did not shrink from calling his actions “foolish and possibly criminal.” Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post wondered how the Georgians could have been guilty of such a gross “miscalculation”; they must have known that Russian peacekeepers would be killed or wounded in the fighting, thus inevitably triggering a harsh Russian response. And so forth.
In the weeks after the invasion, one would search long and hard for speculations of a different and arguably more pertinent sort. Why, for instance, have former Soviet-bloc nations like Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia been so anxious to get into NATO in the first place—or to have a missile-defense shield installed in their backyards? Who were those Russian “peacekeepers,” and what were they doing in South Ossetia? How is it that Moscow was prepared to respond to the Georgian “provocation” with such massive force, and on such short notice?
We now know that Putin’s troops had been on the move along the border of Georgia and the Ossetian region for weeks; that the Russians had been handing out Russian passports to Ossetian “citizens” for months, and since April had been preparing local railroad tracks for the movement of armored troop trains; and that, by August 8, at least 150 Russian tanks were poised for action on the border separating South and North Ossetia. What the evidence suggests is that, far from reacting defensively, Putin and the Russian president Dmitri Medvedev deliberately aimed to elicit Georgia’s move into South Ossetia, aiming to exploit this as a pretext for wresting away both that region and Abkhazia to the west.
To be sure, no one, from Thomas Friedman to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to those European leaders meeting in Brussels, has any “illusions” about Putin. Almost from the day he came to high office in 2000, Western media, policy analysts, and politicians have acknowledged his multiple abuses of power, the corruption of his regime, and the spectacular failure of democratic hopes inside Russia. At the same time, however, and grumbling as they go, all have continued to acquiesce in the fact of Putin’s dictatorship over post-Soviet Russia and his growing encroachment on the rights and territories of the newly independent but still sovereign countries around him. Indeed, the transparency of Putin’s put-up job over Georgia, together with the West’s so-far supine response, follows a pattern of its own, and it too has been discernible from the day he came to power.