Scenes of Russian tanks rumbling through Georgia, the former Soviet republic on the shore of the Black Sea, have touched hearts and consciences around the world, and rightly so. The bloody Russian incursion brings to mind other Russian tanks rolling into Prague in 1968 and Budapest in 1956, crushing hopeful sparks of democracy while the world looked on. For some protesters, especially in Georgia itself, the scenes also recalled another moment, Munich 1938, when the Western allies conceded Czechoslovakia to the Nazi murderers. In a perfect world, such images might serve as timely calls to action.
But the world is not perfect. Russia is not Nazi Germany, and Georgia is not Czechoslovakia. The Russian-Georgian war is not a battle of absolute evil versus absolute innocence, and the onlooking world should not behave as though it is. Too much is at stake.
Georgia is a tiny nation, one of the many squabbling tribes — Armenians, Azeris, Ossetians, Abkhaz, Mingrelians, Chechens and more — that make up the volatile Caucasus region. Once a proud kingdom, Georgia was dismembered in the Middle Ages and reestablished only after World War I, whereupon it was promptly absorbed by the new Soviet Union. Moscow generously padded its Georgian “socialist republic” — the beloved birthplace of dictator Joseph Stalin — by appending two small ethnic regions along the Russian-Georgian border, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Neither of the annexed regions had any love for Georgia. As soon as Georgia declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, they declared independence from Georgia. No nation recognized the breakaways, but Georgia was unable to recapture them. A long standoff ensued — until this month, when Georgia sent in its troops.
Russia’s brutal response was, it must be said, entirely predictable. Russian leader Vladimir Putin had been working for years to erase his nation’s post-Soviet humiliation and regain great-power status. After restoring state control of oil and other privatized industries, his next essential step was reasserting Russia’s dominance of its neighbors. Georgia was fixed in his sights.
Georgia has irritated Moscow since the Rose Revolution in 2003, when Georgians overthrew their ex-communist leader and elected a staunchly pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili. A onetime New York lawyer with close ties to Washington neoconservatives, Saakashvili has been pushing hard to join NATO, which Moscow sees as encroaching on its backyard. He has also cultivated close economic and military ties with Israel, which has a large community of Georgian Jewish émigrés. One former Georgian-Israeli is Georgia’s defense minister. Another Georgian Jew is the government minister in charge of efforts to recapture the breakaway regions, which some Georgians compare wistfully to Israel’s struggle to control the West Bank.
Outweighing all those irritants, however, is Russia’s drive to control the flow of oil and gas to Europe from Central Asia. Russian pipelines now carry Europe’s fuel, allowing Moscow to control prices and earning billions of dollars. They also enable Russia to shut the tap, giving Putin a useful weapon against NATO growth and America’s missile defense plans. But negotiations are underway to build a new international pipeline through Georgia, bypassing Russia. Putin is determined to prevent it.
This month’s fighting shut down pipelines that now run through Georgia from Caspian Sea oilfields. Some European investors now question the safety of the Georgian route, just as Putin hoped. In European business circles, the conflict is known simply as the Pipeline War.
If Putin’s motives are clear, Saakashvili’s are a mystery. Why grab for the breakaway regions at this moment and invite an overpowering Russian response? True, he has made recapturing the breakaways a signature issue, but he also had a reputation for sensible pragmatism. Some observers say he was caught up in neoconservative rhetoric about defending democracy, and failed to consider the sapping of American power in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also may have underestimated the difficulty of facing down a nuclear-armed Russia at a time when Moscow’s help is needed on Iran, oil supplies and other global crises.
Whatever his reasoning, Saakashvili ended up subjecting his nation to a cruel and unnecessary war. He gave Russia an excuse for a brutal and cynical power play. And he exposed America’s helplessness at a dangerous moment.
Israel, for its part, prudently responded to the fighting by stopping military aid to Georgia, understanding that Russia’s help is needed to confront Iran. America has less wiggle room; it must make at least a show of standing up for democracy, however weak its hand.
America and the West have a number of accounts to settle with Putin’s aggressively autocratic regime. But the timing must be of the allies’ choosing, not minor players with their own agendas. Weakening America weakens all its friends.