By Svante E. Cornell, the research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12/08/08):
Russia is portraying its war in Georgia as a legitimate response to Georgia’s incursion last week into its breakaway region of South Ossetia. Many in the West, while condemning the disproportionate nature of Russia’s response, are also critical of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for his attempts to bring South Ossetia back under Georgian rule, and of the United States for supposedly encouraging Mr. Saakashvili’s risk-taking by pushing NATO membership for Georgia.
But the truth is that for the past several months, Russia, not Georgia, has been stoking tensions in South Ossetia and another of Georgia’s breakaway areas, Abkhazia. After NATO held a summit in Bucharest, Romania, in April — at which Georgia and Ukraine received positive signs of potential membership — then-President Vladimir Putin of Russia signed a decree effectively treating Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of the Russian Federation. This was a direct violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
It came after years of growing Russian efforts to assert control over these regions, for example, by distributing Russian passports to citizens and arranging the appointment of Russians to the territories’ governments. Mr. Putin, who is now Russia’s prime minister, oversaw a build-up of Russian “peacekeeping” forces in Abkhazia, which was clearly intended to provoke Georgia into a military response.
Yet Georgia showed restraint — in large part because Mr. Saakashvili understood that military adventurism would harm his NATO prospects. Moscow, in turn, transferred its efforts to South Ossetia, where pro-Russian rebels carried out attacks on Georgian forces and villages, finally provoking the response that Moscow had sought as a pretext to intervene.
Now Moscow has sent out the Black Sea fleet to Georgia’s coast and broadened the war into Abkhazia and Georgia proper, showing that Moscow’s war is not just about South Ossetia. In any case, Moscow’s own treatment of separatism — killing tens of thousands of Chechens over the past decade — says volumes about its claims that it is just trying to protect a minority population.
This war is about making an example in Georgia, about the consequences post-Soviet countries will suffer for standing up to Moscow, conducting democratic reforms and seeking military and economic ties with the West. No Eurasian country has come so far as Georgia in recent years in terms of democratization and reform. Georgia has the third-largest contingent of forces in Iraq, and before this crisis it had pledged to send forces to Afghanistan.
If Georgia is allowed to fall, governments across Eurasia will certainly take note, especially those — such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine — that have built ties with the West and sought closer integration in European institutions, drawing Moscow’s ire.
Should we allow Russia to occupy Georgia or even just depose the Saakashvili government, the implications for America’s standing in Eurasia would be dire. We would risk losing the support of the post-Soviet states of Central Asia that are cooperating with the American mission in Afghanistan, along with hopes of westward exports of more Central Asian energy.
Many who might agree with this analysis nonetheless shrug their shoulders over solutions. Indeed, we have no real military options against Russia. But we can put together a meaningful comprehensive reaction, attaching real costs to Russia for its policies.
America must hit where it hurts: Russia’s international prestige, an obsession of Mr. Putin’s. To begin with, we must do everything possible to see Russia’s membership in the Group of 8 industrialized nations be suspended (something the Republican presidential hopeful John McCain called for even before this crisis).
Once the fighting is over, America must step up its campaign for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Should European countries reject the idea, America could designate them “major non-NATO allies,” along the lines of Israel and Pakistan. This would involve more American military trainers in Georgia, intelligence-sharing, joint exercises and other steps, if not a full pledge by Washington to defend the country in case of attack.
Finally, in a measure of fitting symbolism, America must note that Russia started this war on the opening day of the Olympics, while it plans to hold its own Winter Olympics only a dozen miles from the victim of its aggression. America should seriously consider announcing a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. We owe our Georgian allies nothing less.