The Magazine

What Is To Be Done?

The conflict in Georgia.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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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.