The Magazine

What Is To Be Done?

The conflict in Georgia.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Cold War isn't back. The Russian attacks on Georgia don't mean American soldiers will soon be staring at Red Army soldiers in the middle of Germany or that U.S. defense spending must triple to match a global Russian military juggernaut. But Vladimir Putin's aggression, and the justifications offered for it by Russian leaders, could nevertheless mark a historic turning point. They are a deliberate assault on the structure of international norms and on Western credibility.

The West's response to this assault has so far been anemic. American rhetoric about Russia's actions has been strong but has not deterred Putin from pushing even harder. France's president, Nicholas Sarkozy, went from Moscow to Tbilisi with a Russian ultimatum in his hand disguised as a compromise armistice. Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, signed it while parts of his country were occupied by Russian troops and Russian military aircraft circled overhead. If Sarkozy believes that he has brought peace in our time, he's in for a disappointment. The countries that responded most courageously are those most vulnerable to the imperialistic precedent Putin is attempting to establish--the Baltic States, Ukraine, Poland, and Azerbaijan. The choice before the West now is very clear: We either help those states--and Georgia--protect themselves, or we serve as midwife to a reborn Russian Empire and an international order that is red in tooth and claw.

Saakashvili's decision to send troops into South Ossetia was not an unprovoked act of aggression that somehow justifies Moscow's response. Since Kosovo's declaration of independence in February--an event that the Russians, strong allies of Serbia, violently opposed--Putin has steadily escalated tensions between Georgia and its two breakaway enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian aircraft have downed Georgian unmanned aerial vehicles over Abkhazia. Russia nearly doubled the number of "peacekeepers" in that territory for no very good reason. South Ossetian forces have shelled and raided Georgian areas. Tbilisi's response to these provocations was generally aggressive in tone but more mild in action. It is not entirely clear why Saakashvili decided on August 7 to respond more directly to the most recent provocations, but he acted exclusively on his own territory (South Ossetia is still legally part of Georgia) and in defense of his own citizens under attack.

In the process, Georgian troops fought Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. If Moscow had restricted itself to protecting its peacekeepers, even perhaps to the extent of sending temporary reinforcements to ensure their safety, the conflict and its consequences would still have remained limited. But Putin did no such thing. Through President Dmitri Medvedev, whose status as a figurehead was confirmed in this crisis, Putin ordered an armored unit in nearby Vladikavkaz to secure Tskhinvali and sent in airborne reinforcements from as far away as St. Petersburg. He also expanded the conflict from South Ossetia to Abkhazia, where the Georgians had taken no action that could conceivably be construed as provocative. Abkhazian forces, with Russian assistance, drove Georgian troops out of Abkhazia. Putin sent more than 6,000 additional Russian troops into Abkhazia in violation of Russia's international engagements in the area. Russia's Black Sea fleet moved to the Abkhazian coast and began searching vessels and firing on Georgian boats. And Russian military aircraft began an extensive bombing campaign that targeted the bases of every single combat unit in the Georgian army, as well as command-and-control nodes, radar installations, and other Georgian infrastructure. All of these actions stand in flagrant violation of Russian agreements with Georgia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United Nations.

The Russian excuses for these actions insult the intelligence. Medvedev justified the invasion by announcing Moscow's obligation to protect "the dignity and lives of Russian citizens" whether on Russian soil or not (Moscow had given out thousands of Russian passports to South Ossetians making them "Russian citizens"). The Russian equivalent of our attorney general, prompted by Medvedev, proclaimed that Russian law allows "foreign citizens and individuals without citizenship, not currently living in the Russian Federation, who have committed crimes outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation, to have criminal actions brought against them in the event that the crimes are directed against the interests of the Russian Federation." Following on this, the Russian political and judicial leadership made clear that it is building a legal case against Saakashvili and other Georgian officials to be tried in Russian courts under Russian law--in addition to charges of "genocide" Russia intends to make against Saakashvili in international tribunals. The Russian military has also asserted that it can insist upon the disarmament of foreign military forces stationed on their own soil that have not attacked or threatened to attack Russia if, in the sole opinion of the Russian military leadership, those forces pose a threat to Russian troops--and that it can attack and forcibly disarm those troops if they do not comply.

Thus we see Putin's playbook for the restoration of the Russian Empire. Every former Soviet Republic has a significant population of Russians--in some states more than half the population is ethnically Russian. Moscow has now asserted that it can use military force to defend not only the lives but the "dignity" of those "citizens." It has asserted that Russian Federation law applies not only to those citizens, but to the non-Russian leaders in whose countries they live. And it has asserted that it can use military force preemptively on foreign soil if it sees a threat to its forces or to its "citizens." If these assertions are allowed to stand, the independence of the former Soviet republics is effectively at an end.

That is why the Estonian parliament met in extraordinary session last weekend to ask that NATO offer expedited membership to Georgia. It is why the three Baltic presidents and the president of Poland condemned Russia's actions. It is why Azerbaijan, immediately after the Russian invasion, declared that Saakashvili's initial actions had been legally justified. It is why Ukraine threatened to prevent the Black Sea fleet from returning to its leased port facilities in Sevastopol if it participated in military operations against Georgia (which it did--and the flotilla has since moved to the Russian port of Novorossiisk).

These forthright declarations and actions have exposed all of these countries--including four NATO allies--to Russia's wrath, which Moscow has been quick to show. Russian media responded to Ukraine's announcement with denunciations of Ukrainian military assistance to Georgia--tensions between Moscow and Kiev right now are very high. The West must defend Saakashvili and Georgia and help these other courageous young democracies defend themselves against Russian retribution.

Hitherto, American military assistance has focused on helping our allies help us. We have frowned on efforts by Russia's neighbors to build large reserve forces that could resist a Russian invasion, to buy advanced air defense systems that could protect threatened airspace, or to develop anti-tank capabilities needed to halt Russian armored columns. That is why, for all the military assistance we've given Georgia over the years, the Georgian military crumbled in the face of a limited Russian attack.

In addition to the many good ideas for responding to Russia's aggression that have been proposed elsewhere--expanding NATO, stalling WTO negotiations, kicking Russia out of the G-8--Washington should offer a revamped military assistance program to our NATO allies in Eastern Europe, as well as to Ukraine and Georgia. This program should aim to turn each of those states into a daunting porcupine capable of deterring the Russian bear. We should drop our resistance to the creation of large trained reserves in those countries alongside the small professional militaries we are already helping to create. And we should expand our military advisory presence so that we can help threatened states have the capability to respond to unforeseen Russian attack by denying Russian aircraft control of the skies and Russian tanks free entry into their territory.

All of these actions are defensive. We need not give Russia's neighbors advanced tanks, strike aircraft, or long-range precision weapons. NATO should extend a guarantee to Georgia and Ukraine, but this program could help deter Russian aggression even without such a guarantee. The aims of this effort are very different from our Cold War strategy. We would not be trying to contain Russia in the expectation that it would ultimately collapse of its own contradictions. We would simply be trying to assist independent, sovereign states to protect themselves, and thereby helping persuade Russia to engage the world like any other responsible member of the international community, something that the Russians--in contrast to the Soviets--constantly claim that they are endeavoring to do.

In its own interest and in the interests of its allies, America must reject Vladimir Putin's attempts to rewrite international law to suit Russia's revanchist ambitions. We must reject the Russian fairy tale that aid to Russia's neighbors is a threat to Russia. And we must reject the idea that helping Russia's neighbors stand up to Moscow will create a new Cold War that appeasement would somehow avoid.

--Frederick W. Kagan, for the Editors