Russia has invaded and now occupies the part of Georgia known as South Ossetia, and looks poised to occupy Abkhazia, another part of Georgia. Russian troops are reliably reported to be moving deeper into Georgia, and its air force is continuing to bomb targets in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi as well as the Black Sea ports. The likelihood of a Russian retreat is nil. The question is where they will stop.
Voices in the West have been quick to assert that comparisons between the old Soviet Union and contemporary Russia should not be drawn. This is the usual comforting self-deception practiced when the West comes under threat. Russia is determining its boundaries by force of arms. It has manufactured a crisis that serves its imperial expansion. In pure Stalinist style, its leaders accuse Georgia of genocide, when they themselves are responsible for ethnic cleansing and the death of civilians. Russian spokesmen have made it plain that the Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili must resign, and Georgia will have to do as it is told or suffer the consequences. That is a repeat of 1940 when Stalin swallowed the Baltic republics and parts of Romania.
Last April, at a summit in Bucharest, President Bush in an eloquent speech proposed that Georgia and Ukraine be admitted to NATO. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel persuaded those attending that this would offend Russia, and the proposal was turned down. Her policy was presented as a far-sighted way of steering clear of trouble, but actually it has been an open invitation to Russia to do as it pleased with Georgia and Ukraine, in the certainty that nobody was committed to coming to their aid. German prevarication and fear of anything and everything that might lead to confrontation has once more handed the initiative to a Russia that for centuries has built itself precisely on confrontation.
Mrs. Merkel and the other pitiful Europeans have placed the United States in a very awkward spot. Bleatings about a truce, negotiations, the intervention of the United Nations, international peace-keepers, are merely habitual, and it is anyhow ineffective to run for cover like that. When I was writing The Strange Death of the Soviet Union, an account of the collapse of Communism, I interviewed General Leonid Shebarshin, head of the First Directorate of the KGB, in charge of international affairs. Calmly he told me that the disintegration of the Soviet empire was only a temporary matter. Russia has such weight geographically and materially that the day would arise when it would reconstruct its empire over all the nearby peoples of lesser weight simply through circumstance. Events in Georgia are proving the validity of this KGB viewpoint.
It is too late to defend Georgia militarily. The logic of the situation now is that the West will duly let Georgia be dismembered and have as its next president someone ready to accommodate the Kremlin. In which case, Russian tanks will once again have determined the boundaries and the governments of other countries. Russian minorities live in Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldavia and they too can be used in the future to manufacture some mendacity about genocide, leading to invasion and their re-incorporation into the Russian empire. Russian protection of Iranian nuclear development certainly adds another dimension of difficulty and danger. But without the necessary resolve and imagination to devise a policy in defence of democracy and its allies, a Soviet Union Mark Two will have emerged with the potential to leave the West demoralized and defeated.