The Russian invasion of Georgia took place just before the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
As Russian tanks poured into South Ossetia, an ethnic enclave within Georgia, I remembered Aug. 22, 1968, when Soviet tanks rumbled into Prague; I lived there during the 1968 “Prague spring.” The Czech crime, in Soviet eyes, was their efforts to chart a course somewhat independent of Moscow.
Russia’s iron fist makes it look as if it is trying to re-create a previous era. Or to dominate the oil-rich Caspian region and the pipelines that provide Europe with much of its energy. The outcome of the Georgia crisis will show what kind of role Russia wants to play in the world.
Moscow, of course, denies aggressive ambitions. It calls Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili “the aggressor” for sending troops into South Ossetia, accusing him of “war crimes.”
A little history is in order.
When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, its former republics eagerly became independent. I visited the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, in June 1990; Georgians told me they feared that Moscow would stir up unrest among minorities in order to keep Georgia weak and retain Russian military bases.
Soon afterward, unrest exploded in Abkhazia, a large autonomous area along Georgia’s coast where only 20 percent of the people were ethnic Abkhazians. Tens of thousands of Georgians were driven out, shifting the ethnic balance. Russia attacked the remaining Georgians there last week.
Clearly, the Kremlin wants to keep control of its former republics; ethnic manipulation is a useful tool. Ignoring Georgian sovereignty, Moscow issued Russian passports in recent years to South Ossetians and Abkhazians, and now it declares that it has to protect its citizens.
By stirring the ethnic pot, the Kremlin provoked Georgian leader Saakashvili into invading South Ossetia. When he (rashly) took the bait, Moscow pounced.
The Georgian leader may have been misled to expect Western military help by the recent U.S. push to get Georgia into NATO. This was an overreach rightly rejected by European members at the NATO summit last April. The proper response to Russia’s regional aggression cannot be a NATO attack.
But neither can that response be limited to rhetoric. Russia’s actions have implications for Europe and the wider world.
Russia wants to topple Saakashvili and keep its troops in Georgia. That has to give other neighbors of Russia the shivers; it raises questions about Russia’s future dealings with the rest of the world.
As for Europe, Moscow has been eager to control pipelines carrying energy to Europe from Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Western investors built the BTC pipeline from the Caspian through Georgia, avoiding Russia.
Central Asia expert Martha Brill Olcott thinks the Georgia crisis could undercut confidence in the BTC route; it might also dissuade central Asian nations from considering other pipeline proposals that would circumvent Russia. That would make Europe ever-more energy dependent on Russia.
What to do? Most essential is a unified stance by the United States and the European Union. America cannot act alone.
Europe and America must support, and provide substantial aid to, Saakashvili, and insist on the need for independent peacekeepers in Georgia. European countries must finally fashion a joint energy policy and lessen dependence on Moscow, rather than cutting separate deals with Russia.
And the West must make clear that, if the Russians balk, this will be a “game-changer” for Western-Russian relations. Under present conditions, it’s hard to imagine holding the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, not far from the Georgian war zone.
This is not an effort to humiliate Russia. As Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said: “Russia has legitimate interests in its neighborhood, but the means they are using are no way to pursue them.”
Moscow can’t imitate 1968 in 2008. Otherwise, the Kremlin will face a self-imposed renewal of cold war.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.