Though disagreements remain over how the conflict began, there is no denying that two years ago this weekend, Russian troops crossed an internationally recognized border and invaded Georgia. They attacked all of the country with strategic bombers, pushed deep into its sovereign territory, displaced nearly 127,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes, recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and established a military occupation that remains in effect.
Much has changed in the past two years — but not for the better. Russia not only occupies Georgian territory but is building military bases there, denying access to humanitarian missions and monitors, permitting the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in South Ossetia, and working to fortify the administrative boundary lines of the breakaway regions into hardened borders. More than 100,000 ethnic Georgians who fled Russia’s invasion remain in a situation of effective displacement, according to U.N. estimates. Even now, Russia is in violation of the cease-fire commitments it made with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Despite living under constant Russian threat, Georgia continues to move forward. Nearly 1,000 Georgian troops are fighting alongside us, without caveats, in the toughest parts of Afghanistan. Georgia is strengthening the rule of law, fighting corruption and expanding an economy that the World Bank considers the 11th-best place in the world to do business. Mayoral elections this year in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, were internationally praised as free and fair. While Georgia’s political reforms are a work in progress, European Parliament representatives called the Tbilisi election “a real step toward the democratic development of the country.”
In Russia, however, human rights advocates continue to be threatened, abused and even assassinated. Just last weekend peaceful demonstrators, including former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, were beaten and arrested for exercising basic human rights guaranteed in the Russian Constitution. If President Dmitry Medvedev wants a model for political and economic modernization, he could look to Georgia. And if the Obama administration is looking for a relationship that really needs a “reset,” it should look to Georgia, too.
The administration has appeared more eager to placate an autocratic Russia than to support a friendly Georgian democracy living under the long shadow of its aggressive neighbor. It has lavished Medvedev with long phone calls and frequent meetings, with only modest foreign policy gains to show for it. Meanwhile, the administration has demonstrated little willingness to engage with Georgia’s leadership, to further its NATO aspirations, to help rebuild its defenses or, until recently, even to call Russia’s troop presence in Georgia what it is — an occupation — let alone pressure Russia to withdraw. The White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently made some encouraging statements in support of Georgia; now, they should turn these good words into better policies.
If Medvedev is serious about his vision of a Russia guided by the rule of law, he could bring his government into compliance with the international agreement he made to return Russian forces to their prewar positions outside Georgia. For its part, the Obama administration could rally the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to develop a road map with Russia to end the occupation of Georgia — an incremental approach that could lead to the withdrawal of Russian troops, the return of displaced persons and the restoration of Georgia’s territorial integrity. If Russia does not make progress, there should be consequences: Medvedev must know that cooperation on Georgia is a U.S. priority and that if Russia does not deliver on our priorities, he should not expect the United States to deliver on his priorities, such as accession to the World Trade Organization.
Another area where Georgia needs U.S. support is in rebuilding its defenses. Georgia is doing more fighting in Afghanistan than much of the NATO alliance it wishes to join. Yet it has been a struggle to get the administration to provide Georgian troops heading into combat even basic equipment, armored vehicles and replacement parts. Beyond this short-term assistance, Georgia needs long-term support to provide for its own defense. This is likely to entail antitank capabilities, air defenses, early-warning radar and other defensive systems that should not be misconstrued as U.S. endorsement for any Georgian use of force against its separatist regions. Georgia will always be less powerful than Russia, but that is no reason to leave it vulnerable two years after a Russian invasion.
For all the damage it has done to Georgia, and its threats to do more, Russia has failed to achieve its strategic objectives: The democratic government of Georgia has survived and is thriving. The U.S.-Russia relationship should enhance this success, not jeopardize it. We have an opportunity to support Georgia’s emergence as a strong, whole and free nation — but only if we remember who our real friends are.
John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona.