Though the order “Lights, camera, action!” was given by Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, the wartime drama now unfolding in the Caucasus was devised, scripted, directed, and produced in Moscow by Vladimir Putin and his fellow siloviki (or former KGB kleptocrats.) For almost two decades Russia has sought to divide and destabilize the new independent states in its former backyard by helping to establish, finance, and protect “breakaway” ethnic statelets such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia within the sovereign territory of Georgia.
These statelets fulfill two important functions.
First, they provide the siloviki with country estates. Almost none of the officials in the South Ossetian government are locals. Most are high-ranking former KGB officials from other parts of Russia. But South Ossetia provides them with a safe haven in which they can launder money, run smuggling operations, traffic in women, divert official funds into their pockets, and wage small but useful wars. Those wars are the second function: They help to destabilize independent states, especially pro-Western states such as Georgia, already weakened by division. South Ossetian “forces” have been bombing Georgian villages at irregular intervals for years, but recently more intensively.
That gave Saakashvili a choice of evils. Either he did nothing — and lost a large chunk of his country to Putin’s salami tactics. (He recently gave Russian passports to South Ossetians otherwise unable to travel.) Or he sought to regain at least some of South Ossetia by a lightning raid. Saakashvili chose what is manifestly the worse of the those two evils. It proved to be a disaster for him and for Georgia.
A massive Russian response, quite manifestly ready to go, was launched. Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia. Another pro-Russian force attacked Georgia in that part of the second breakaway province of Abkhazia that Tblisi still controls. Georgia’s well-trained but modest army was forced to withdraw. Russian planes continued to bomb central Georgia, seeking to degrade both military and economic targets. When Saakashvili proposed a cease-fire, the Russians at first refused to talk to him, then started multiplying conditions for their acceptance; those conditions now include Saakashvili’s resignation.
Throughout this calculated aggression, the Russian media has played an inglorious but technically brilliant role. They have used the most modern techniques of journalism and marketing to broadcast the worst lies of the Kremlin. Those lies themselves have been cleverly designed to imitate the West’s own justifications for the Kosovo intervention: “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide.” Doubtless the Georgian forces committed crimes in their incursion into South Ossetia. There are plausible reports that they shelled villages. But they were overwhelmed so quickly that they simply could not have committed crimes of the scale alleged by the Kremlin. Besides, Russia’s long patronage of South Ossetian attacks, its invasion across internationally recognized borders, and its relentless bombing of a country that has retreated and offered a cease-fire deprives it of any right to make such accusations. Russian policy is a war crime in itself.
None of this is or should be about Russia or the Russian people. All of it stinks of Soviet propaganda, Soviet brutality, Soviet morality, and Soviet nostalgia. It is the handiwork of the siloviki clique that currently monopolizes power in Russia through authoritarian politics, kleptocratic economics, and media manipulation. This clique must be shown that war crimes do not pay. The Russian people, too, need to learn that nostalgia for Soviet imperialism is a dead end for Russia. But that means that the West must demonstrate unmistakably that the post–Cold War international order will not be overturned — neither in the world nor in the Caucasus. Not much can be done at present on the ground. We have neither the military means nor the political unwisdom to imitate Saakashvili’s rash adventurism. What the West can do is to use its influence and diplomatic skills to ensure that the conflict ends before more people die or more of Georgia is dismembered. Unless the desire to punish Georgia has driven the siloviki beyond all common sense, they will be content with this de facto annexation. For Saakashvili, a settlement binding Georgia to use only peaceful means in seeking reunification with South Ossetia is probably the best that can be obtained in the wake of military defeat. In effect the conflict would be “re-frozen.”
In the long term, however, America and its allies must demonstrate that Russia has lost more than it gained from this conflict. One first step must be for the U.S. to agree with its NATO allies to confirm an offer of NATO membership for both Georgia and Ukraine. Poland, the Baltic states, and other central European countries are already calling for an emergency NATO summit that might issue such a declaration. Only Germany seems to stand in the way of such a decision — and the Germans should be told firmly that their opposition to Georgia membership earlier this year encouraged the siloviki to mount this attack. Time for them to forget Rapallo once and for all, and join the rest of the West in resisting the re-emergence of the USSR.
Second, we should ask Poland and the Czech Republic to hold any necessary referendums on installing a missile defense system to be held at once — and campaign on the argument that Russia has just shown that it cannot be trusted to be a good international neighbor. Such a victory would lose the Kremlin far more than it gained in the Caucasus.
Third, once the fighting has definitively stopped, the U.S. should offer a generous rebuilding program in Georgia — to be carried out, in part, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That is one piece of social work that the Pentagon should relish.
Is there a role for economic sanctions here — such as expelling Russia from the G8? Not in the first instance. Sanctions generally work better as a threat than as a policy. And Europeans are reluctant to lose the business they cut off. So sanctions should be used as a threat. Russia should be quietly told that if it obstructs any of the policies outlined above, then a list of economic sanctions will be progressively imposed. Russia looks stronger — economically and militarily — than it really is. The siloviki know it; so do we. We should make plain that everyone will know if they continue along the path of resuscitating the Soviet corpse.