The Blog

Stopping Russia Next Time

The need for an Eastern European security alliance.

10:00 AM, Aug 15, 2008 • By CHARLIE SZROM
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AS RUSSIAN BOMBS FELL on apartment complexes in Gori, Georgia, this week, President Bush made speeches. As Georgian ships sank in the Black Sea, NATO planned an "extraordinary meeting." As a Georgian woman fled her home towards Tbilisi, she asked "Where is America now?" Unlike our forceful responses to aggression in Kosovo and Kuwait in the 1990s, we were nowhere to be found.

Others share blame for the result of this conflict, of course. Georgian forces fell for Russia's ploy and poorly timed their strike against the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russia also attacked efficiently, employing rapid land movements as well as air and artillery assaults that struck the base of every Georgian brigade except for the one serving in Iraq.

Ultimately, however, Russia saw NATO's failure to offer a Membership Action Plan at Bucharest in April as a bright neon-sign that read, "Attack Georgia before December" (when NATO will meet to discuss Georgia's potential membership). Russia's victory today goes far beyond its minimal goal of destabilizing Georgia. Moscow now likely believes it can, by de-fanging Tbilisi, possibly removing Saakashvili, and reducing the country's sovereignty, turn Georgia into a larger version of the mini-client-states it sponsors in Transdnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.

Georgia's neighbors' actions came far closer to practical assistance than anything offered by the international community, the United States, or NATO. Ukraine threatened to bar Russian ships that had returned from conflict with Georgia from Sevastopol; Moscow bases its Black Sea fleet at the Crimean port under a lease agreement that expires in 2017.

The leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine flew to Tbilisi to express solidarity with Saakashvili and issued assertive statements at the outset of the conflict. This begs the question: Why wasn't a trip to Tbilisi the first thing on President Bush's agenda when the conflict broke out? After all, the city boasts a highway named "George W. Bush" and played host to our president in 2005.

The United States has begun to offer real assistance, starting with a C-17 cargo plane that arrived in Georgia on August 13 with humanitarian aid. But Russia will get almost everything it wants in the final settlement. We acted too late, while Georgia's Eastern European neighbors responded to the threat immediately.

Georgians, and the citizens of other nations who rely upon American security guarantees--countries such as Iraq, South Korea, and Afghanistan--will not soon forget that American friendship helped little when conquering boots crunched rubble underfoot.

How can we begin to rebuild our reputation among our allies?

In the short term, we can massively increase the aid we're now sending to Georgia. We can help install a countrywide air defense system to offset the target-and-shoot Russian bombing that helped paralyze Georgian forces. We should declare attempts to remove Saakashvili or reduce Georgia's sovereignty to be redlines whose crossing would result in travel sanctions against Russian leaders.

In the long term, we should continue to push for a Georgia's membership in NATO. But this will not happen soon, as skittish Western Europeans do not want a conflict-prone country in their midst. In the meantime, one solution to this impasse is the creation of regional security framework that would ensure Russia does not repeat the South Ossetian model in Ukrainian Crimea, Azeri Nagorno Karabagh, or Moldovan Transdnistria.

ON AUGUST 14, the Georgian parliament voted, upon Saakashvili's request, to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Without NATO or CIS, Tbilisi stands outside a comprehensive security alliance.

As the CIS exists to protect Russia's security and not that of its smaller member states, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova should follow Georgia's path and remove all remaining connections to the CIS. Exiting the CIS will not prompt Russian action. Rather, much as NATO's April appeasement of Russia instigated Russian action this month, bolstering a regional balance of power to Russia will make conflict more costly for Russia and therefore less likely.

Only Georgia's neighbors--particularly Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Azerbaijan--gave Georgia practical assistance during the conflict. These nations should join together in an organization that would guarantee mutual security and maintain active joint force presences in threatened member nations.