The most grotesque aspect of Russia’s aggression in Georgia is the repeated Russian claim that Georgia poses a threat to Russia and its citizens. In language harking back to the Orwellian rhetoric of the Cold War, all Russian troops are “peacekeepers” and all Georgian forces are “diversionaries” and “terrorists.” Russian troops are now openly occupying Georgian territory on the grounds that law and order in Georgia has collapsed. Of course it has. Russian tanks and airplanes crushed it underfoot. Moscow bemoans the absence of “legitimate political leadership” in Georgian territories like Gori even as its troops occupy Gori without the slightest shred of legitimacy in international law. And, yes, this is in contrast with American actions in Iraq, which took place on the legal basis of the U.N. resolutions that followed (and ended) the first Gulf War.
The Russian occupation of Georgia has no such legal basis at all — not even the legality of a declaration of war. Yet Moscow continues to portray this occupation as an unfortunate necessity imposed upon Russia by Georgian “genocide” and incapacity to govern. The poor Russian general staff officers complain that they cannot even plan properly for the pull-back (as they explained in detail, Russian forces are not “withdrawing” from Georgia) since the Georgians can’t seem to get their act together despite the assistance of Russian soldiers, tanks, and combat aircraft in their country. The most Orwellian claim of all came today, when the spokesman for the Russian general staff explained that Georgian troops were attempting to reconstitute their combat capabilities and were concentrating around Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. What an outrage! How dare the Georgians prepare to defend their capital! It is nothing less than an act of provocation, according to the Russians.
Comparing the current Russian rhetoric to the Cold War is, to some degree, unfair — to the Soviet Union. When the U.S.S.R. invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Moscow was meticulous about creating a fictitious Afghan government that “requested” the “fraternal assistance” of its socialist ally to the north, even if the leader of that government, Babrak Karmal, was not in Afghanistan at the time. Soviet operations to crush dissent in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland also followed “requests” from the leadership of those countries to their “fraternal socialist allies” to the east. Since the Soviets went to great lengths to explain the theory whereby they were always the “peaceloving peoples,” even when they invaded other countries, they also worked hard to preserve a veneer, however thin, to support the theory.
Putin, by contrast, feels no such obligation. The leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia certainly did ask for Russian assistance — as well they might, being out-and-out Russian satellites. Those requests were in line with traditional Cold War Soviet practice. But there is no Georgian government-in-exile requesting Russian “fraternal assistance” within Georgia proper. There is no U.N. mandate, no OSCE agreement, no provision in the charter of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and no article in the trilateral agreement by which Russian peacekeepers were in South Ossetia to begin with, justifying Russian attacks on Georgian cities, roads, and garrisons. The only justification the Russians can find for their unremitting efforts to destroy the Georgian military completely is that it poses a threat to their “peacekeepers.” Stalin is probably spinning in his grave, wishing that he’d thought of that. As a justification for the illegal occupation of a neighbor and the destruction of its military, this thesis is so much easier to explain than Marxism-Leninism! And the wonderful thing about it is that it works everywhere: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, even Poland — all could pose threats to Russian troops, er, peacekeepers.
The one problem with this otherwise brilliant justification for outright Russian imperialism is that it is demonstrably false — unlike the esoteric theoretical premises of Marxism-Leninism. The Georgian military at its pre-war height consisted of about 29,000 servicemembers, including perhaps 17,000 in maneuver units in the army. It was mostly a light-infantry force, fielding around 82 T-72 tanks, around 210 armored personnel carriers. Its air force had half a dozen or so operational combat airplanes and about ten operational attack helicopters. The Russian army, by contrast, has over 6,000 tanks, more than 6,000 armored personnel carriers, hundreds of bombers, fighters, and fighter-bombers. Russian forces within Georgian territory numbered well over 10,000, calculating all the reinforcements Moscow sent to “protect” its peacekeepers. It is very likely that Russian forces within Georgia now outnumber the remaining effectives in the Georgian army.