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.
In the process of protecting its peacekeepers, Moscow has bombed and/or occupied and demolished the garrison of every single Georgian army maneuver unit, every major military airfield, and Georgia’s command-and-control centers. Russian units have been systematically destroying barracks, other buildings, and equipment at Georgian brigade garrisons at Senaki and Gori. The Russians announced that they had seized or destroyed almost every single tank the Georgians once possessed, as well as a great deal of artillery, and even rifles and small-arms ammunition — all on the soil of Georgia, not South Ossetia or Abkhazia. There has been no parallel to this military operation since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. It is an assault on the fabric of international law fully as devastating as Saddam’s. But even Saddam never claimed that Kuwait posed a threat to Iraq.
The problem is that Russia is much bigger and stronger than Iraq, and Putin is much smarter than Saddam ever was. He knows that the U.S., to say nothing of Europe, is not going to send troops to Georgia. Washington has been unwilling even to send military equipment to an ally whose troops were fighting alongside of ours in Iraq just a few weeks ago — although it’s not clear that such a move would make any sense, to be sure, since the Russians would likely just destroy anything we sent anyway. He does not believe that Russia will be kicked out of the G-8, stalled at the WTO, or pay any real price at all for this act of naked aggression. He believes that Russia will shortly recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states — take that, Kosovo! — and no one will react.
He seems to intend to bring Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to trial either in the Hague or in Moscow or both for war crimes and genocide, and Russian spokesmen rail against America’s refusal to “recognize” those war crimes and the genocide that did not occur in South Ossetia (where even inflated Russian figures put the death toll at around 1,600 people — far too many deaths, to be sure, but certainly not a genocide). All this will likely lead to Russian pressure on Georgia — did I mention that Russian forces have possessed themselves of the hydroelectric power station that supplies most of Georgia’s electricity on the pretext of protecting it from Georgian terrorism? — to remove Saakashvili and submit to Moscow’s will. And then who knows? Ukraine’s pro-Western president is bringing charges against the pro-Russian prime minister. The Baltic states are panicking, as well they might. For facing the Russian challenge is much harder and more complicated than was facing Saddam Hussein in 1990 — not that that was easy.
But we must find a way. The alternative is to permit Putin to turn international law into the law of the jungle. Russia has not pursued so overtly an aggressive and imperialistic goal since the days of Catherine the Great. Putin’s naked ambition may leave us longing for the days of Soviet sublety. After the invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Winter Olympics, imposed economic sanctions on Russia, sent military aid to Afghanistan, and embarked on what would become the Reagan military build-up. So far, the United States has canceled joint naval exercises with Russia and sent humanitarian aid to Georgia. It seems unlikely that that will be enough to deter Putin from further aggression.