Condoleezza Rice -- supposedly an expert on Russia -- rushed to Tbilisi last week, persuading reluctant Georgian President Saakahsvili to sign a cease-fire containing enough loopholes for a Russian tank battalion to drive through.
Rice said she was told by French President Sarkozy that Russia's President had promised "that the minute the Georgian president signed the cease-fire agreement, Russian forces would begin to withdraw." The Russians outsmarted her by reserving an imprecise role for Russian "peacekeepers" -- a truly Orwellian designation for soldiers who are busy destroying Georgia. Rubbing borscht into the wound, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said Russian troops would not withdraw until Moscow "is satisfied that security measures its forces are allowed to take under the agreement are effective." When asked how much time this would take, he contemptuously replied: "As much as needed."
A day later, Rice was compelled to admit she had been duped: "From my point of view, the Russians are perhaps already not honoring their word." Rice's record is hardly reassuring. Two of her prior cease-fires -- Gaza 2005 and Lebanon 2006 -- resulted in massive flows of rockets to Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists, guaranteeing copious bloodshed, especially if Israel or the U.S. gets serious about the Iranian nuclear threat.
Peril to Ukraine, Poland and Estonia
The perils along Russia's elephantine borders are likewise alarming. Georgia, a tiny prosperous democracy situated on the fault line separating Christian from Moslem states, is suffering political and economic ruin. There are far larger dominoes located more centrally in Europe. If the Russians escape from this aggression cost-free, then Ukraine, Poland (a Russian general last week threatened Poland with becoming a nuclear target for hosting U.S. missile defense) and Estonia (with which Russia has conspicuously refused to accept the border) may be the next targets.
The current conflict dates to the 13th century when Ossetians, a mostly Christian people speaking an Iranian language, fled the Mongol invasion of Russia, migrating south over the Caucasus Mountains. By 1801, Russian manifest destiny absorbed the Caucasus, resulting in annexation of Georgia, including South Ossetia. Georgia has since see-sawed from independence when Russia is weak to suppression when Russia is strong. South Ossetians side with Russians because their North Ossetian kinsmen remained within Russia and Russia uses Ossetians as leverage against Georgians.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgia became independent. South Ossetia (like Abkhazia, the western region of Georgia which Russia is likewise seeking to detach) is indisputably within the recognized territorial boundaries of Georgia. South Ossetians -- inhabiting an enclave the size of Rhode Island with a majority of Ossetians and Russians -- seek independence. Hundreds were killed in 1992 fighting, ended by creation of a Russian-South Ossetian-Georgian peacekeeping force.
Why Russia Decided to Punish Georgia as Surrogate for the U.S.
By jeopardizing Georgia's energy pipelines, President Putin aims to bolster Russian near-monopolization of the lucrative Caspian energy supply to Europe; Putin's economic tactics, e.g., ongoing theft of Beyond (British) Petroleum's interests and imprisoning businessmen, puts to shame Nineteenth Century Robber Barons. No wonder he is being called the new Tsar.
Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia University elected in 2004, advocates free markets, democracy, and alignment with the West (including NATO membership) and Georgian sovereignty over breakaway regions. Two recent events motivated Russia to punish Georgia as a surrogate for the West. Russia was antagonized by western backing for Kosovo independence. And President Bush, at the March NATO summit, backed membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Coolness (some would say timidity) of the European powers to Bush's proposal emboldened Russia.
Russia clearly planned to use the Olympic season (just as it invaded Afghanistan on Christmas day in 1979) to bait Saakashivili into responding to violence against Georgians. The results are ominous. Russian forces are systematically destroying the economy and military bases of Georgia (e.g., stealing all Georgia's naval patrol boats). They sit astride the main east-west road, making travel and commerce impossible, with tanks positioned near Tbilisi. Georgian men in South Ossetia have been separated from women and taken to unknown fates in Russian detention camps. A reporter saw Georgian men being compelled to clean streets in South Ossetia's capital. Georgian villages in South Ossetia are being looted and razed. A credible diplomat told me of summary executions of Georgians. The Russians are getting away with ethnic cleansing and will seek to depose the Georgian president.
What the U.S. and Its Allies Can Do
At week's end, President Bush said:
"The United States and our allies stand with the people of Georgia and their democratically elected government; Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the free world."
These words are meaningless unless western nations-thoughtfully but resolutely implement a blend of available sanctions, including (1) forcing Russia to veto a Security Council resolution condemning its aggression against Georgia; (2) investigating Russian war crimes; (3) extending NATO protection to Russia's neighbors; (4) expelling Russia from the G-8; and (5) reconsidering the 2010 winter Olympics in Sochi, located on Georgia's doorstep.
European Union powers must come to understand that their fixation on soft power is useless when dealing with evils of this magnitude. It took U.S. air power to rescue Europe from its helplessness to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. If European powers do not learn swiftly that economic power brings real security responsibilities, Europe may be doomed to suffer a succession of Prague Springs in the 21st century.
I do not advocate a mindless return to the Cold War . But history teaches that the first unpunished invasion of a small neighbor will not be the last. The defense of small free countries requires medicine stronger than Ms Rice's porous cease-fires.
Joel J. Sprayregen is a Chicago lawyer and writer on international security matters. He has travelled in Georgia, is in touch with authoritative sources there and expects to return to the country next month.