The breakup of the Soviet Union left a number of loose ends, border issues located largely on the periphery of the old Soviet empire, unsettled disputes that the Russians refer to as frozen conflicts. The war that has broken out in Georgia is one of these, a festering political dispute in which the implications of the issues involved are far more important than the territory in question. In retrospect the conflict is not entirely surprising; the last few months have seen a number of violent incidents in the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia — shellings, bombings, kidnappings, shootings, and so forth. The frozen war was clearly defrosting.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s attempt to take back South Ossetia by force was certainly ill-timed and unwise. Perhaps he thought the inexperienced Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is nominally in charge of Russia’s defense policy, would be too indecisive to act. Or that the more capable Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who actually runs the country, would be too distracted by the opening ceremonies of the Olympics to take concerted action. Whatever Saakashvili was thinking, his offensive was a rash act, and the Russians demonstrated not only their willingness to intervene but their capability to drub the relatively small Georgian armed forces in a conventional fight. The lesson for Georgia is that they would not fare well against a full scale Russian invasion, though that does not appear to be Russia’s intention at this time.
Russia’s hypocrisy in supporting the cause of the Ossetians is stunning. During the conflict in Chechnya there was no question that the separatists would be annihilated, not given independence or a special status inside Russia. In the Kosovo war, Russia was a stalwart defender of principle of Serbian sovereignty against Kosovar self-determination. But when it comes to Georgia, Russia is suddenly the champion of “oppressed peoples.”
Granted, there is a subtle difference between these cases and other separatist movements. Russia has been giving Abkhazians and South Ossetians passports for years. President Medvedev justified the incursion into Georgia on the grounds that the Russian constitution requires him to protect “the life and dignity” of all Russians wherever they may be, and technically that includes the 90 percent of the separatists who hold Russian passports. This is a rather expansive definition of state power, similar to the Nazi notion of the Volksdeutsche, the ethnic Germans living abroad who, according to Hitler, required German protection. One gets a whiff of the Sudetenland from this conflict, a preliminary dismembering before forcible annexation. Russian use of inflammatory language such as Putin accusing the Georgians of “complete genocide” and saying they have “lost the right to rule” the area also strikes one as an attempt to lay the groundwork for more concerted action in the future. At the very least they would like to see President Saakashvili out of office. One appreciates the frankness of Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitali Churkin’s recent statement regarding Saakashvili that “there are leaders who become an obstacle. Sometimes those leaders need to contemplate how useful they have become to their people.”
The international community reacted with swift condemnation of Russia’s actions, particularly because the response was so decisive and reached beyond the immediate area in contention. (A lesson learned from Kosovo — if NATO could strike the Serbian capital of Belgrade, why shouldn’t Russia bomb the Tbilisi airport?) Also at stake is the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline that carries one percent of the world’s oil supply. By destroying it Russia would generate higher oil prices, gravely hurt the Georgian economy, maybe convince countries in the Caspian region to route their oil through Russia. But Moscow cannot be so blatant as to simply demolish the pipeline. They took a shot at the terminal and missed; another shot won’t be so easy to make look accidental. Given the tension over world energy supplies such a move would be somewhat more serious than the matter of who controls a mountainous area in central Georgia.
But international umbrage is wasted on Russia. They really don’t care what anyone thinks, and their veto power in the Security Council nullifies the possibility of meaningful U.N. action. Russia used force because they knew they could. No country would intervene militarily to stop them, especially the United States. And this is not because the U.S. is tied up in other conflicts; America would not send troops to that war zone even if we were at peace. There is not enough at stake to risk direct conflict with Russia. Meanwhile Georgia is pulling all 2,000 of its troops from Iraq, with the U.S. providing the rapid airlift, and one hopes we will do more to shore up our Coalition partners, such as give materiel or intelligence support.
Yet, short of fighting, there is a way the United States can take meaningful action. Some argue that the events of the past week demonstrate the unsuitability of Georgia for NATO membership, that the country’s leadership is too erratic and their neighborhood too dangerous. On the contrary, this is a perfect opportunity for the member nations of NATO to show their resolve. At the April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, the leadership agreed that Georgia would become a member of the alliance. It is critical to honor this commitment, and in fact to put Georgia on the fast track for membership. The member states must demonstrate to Russia that Moscow does not hold veto power over which countries may enter NATO. And this would be a fitting show of gratitude for Georgia’s participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Furthermore, it would cause Russia to think very clearly about the implications of future aggressive moves against Georgia, particularly actions outside the areas already occupied by Russian “peacekeepers.”