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 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.