Given the tremendous damage Russia inflicted on Georgia, it is easy to conclude that Moscow has achieved its objectives. But so far Moscow has failed in its real goal — getting rid of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-democracy, pro-American president. To be sure, Russia has tightened its control of the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It shattered the Georgian military, grievously damaged Georgia’s economy and stirred up discord within the Western alliance. For three years, it has tried every conceivable tactic to bring him down — fomenting a domestic uprising, imposing an economic blockade, beefing up its forces in the enclaves and finally a war. Yet Saakashvili is still in power.
Here in Tbilisi, tension is understandably high. Russian tanks are less than 25 miles away, and the wheat fields along the main road to Gori were ablaze, set on fire by Russian troops, as I drove through Russian checkpoints to get to that deserted, occupied city last Saturday. (Most memorable sight: drunken Russian soldiers in stolen Georgian uniforms — «because they are better than ours.»)
The Russian invasion of Georgia will reshape the strategic landscape the next U.S. president confronts. But as the West debates how to «punish Russia,» it is vital to remember that the main front is still in Georgia. Talk about taking away the 2014 Winter Olympics or ejecting Russia from the G-8 group of major industrial nations may (or may not) have some effect on Moscow, but the most important thing the West can do now is strengthen the government in Tbilisi. The equation is simple: If Mikheil Saakashvili survives, Vladimir Putin loses.
The intense personal hatred between these men overlays two centuries of tortured history between Russia and Georgia. Many have reported that Putin simply «loses it» when discussing the upstart Saakashvili, who led his country from near bankruptcy into a golden age of economic growth and the world’s highest rate of foreign direct investment as a percentage of GDP. All this has been halted by Russian tanks.
Moscow has probably lost its chance to remove Saakashvili by overt force, although sinister, more stealthy means cannot be ruled out. Having just had dinner with him in a public restaurant, I wish his security was a little tighter. (His predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze was a near-miss target for several assassination attempts that are widely believed to have been Russian-directed.) Moscow’s best hope now is that the Georgian economy will crumble rapidly, the currency will collapse and an unhappy populace, encouraged by some opposition leader (perhaps bankrolled by Moscow), will force Saakashvili from power.
The Western response to this challenge must go beyond rhetoric. What matters most right now is massive economic and military assistance. Public commitments to help rebuild Georgia are the best way to prevent Russia from achieving its goal. Prime Minister Vladimir Gurgenidze estimates that rebuilding railroads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure will cost at least $1 billion; this does not include humanitarian relief, refugee resettlement costs or rebuilding Georgia’s military. Gurgenidze also foresees negative economic growth, a huge budget deficit and a collapse of tourism, which was just taking off in this beautiful country.
Sen. Joe Biden has called for an immediate $1 billion supplemental appropriation, a proposal quickly endorsed by Barack Obama. But the Bush administration has not yet been specific on economic support. Congress will be in session only briefly before the election, and a supplemental will pass only if it is pursued vigorously by President Bush as a bipartisan measure. Even if delayed until next year, its immediate proposal by Bush and endorsement by both presidential candidates would help morale in Georgia. American support must be matched by the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
In the long run, Georgia and Russia must coexist peacefully. Here, Georgia must do its part. Saakashvili, an immensely talented 41-year-old, saved his country from utter collapse in 2003. But he must think strategically about the future. On occasion, he has berated the Europeans for insufficient support — not a good tactic for someone trying to join the European Union — and has used rhetoric about Moscow that, while understandable, only increases the danger to himself. For centuries Georgia has struggled to live with its giant neighbor. Saakashvili cannot pick up his tiny country and move it to Mexico. He has to manage the situation with greater care.
There will be consequences, of course, for Russia’s relations with the West. But those decisions will be made by the next president. (Bush’s inattentiveness to this Russian threat — dramatically illustrated by his literal embrace of Putin in Beijing as Russian tanks rolled into Georgia — may have led Moscow to think it could get away with its invasion.) While the West is not going to war over Georgia, Russia must understand that it will pay for using force, or the threat of force, against neighbors that were once part of the Soviet space. This is especially true for Ukraine and Azerbaijan, which are likely to be Moscow’s next targets for intimidation. The rules of the post-Cold War world are changing — but not to the ultimate benefit of Russia, which has underestimated the unifying effect its actions will have on the West. Exactly how these relationships evolve depends on what each side does in the coming weeks — especially in Georgia.
Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration who writes a monthly column for The Post.