Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili is not a very smart president. A pro would not have walked into the trap the Russians and their local thug-in-chief (aka president), Eduard Kokoity, set up in South Ossetia last summer. A wise leader would have done some elementary intelligence work and then recoiled in horror. Across the border in (Russian) North Ossetia lay Russia’s 58th Army, steeled by annihilationist warfare in Chechnya and considered its besttrained troops. It has 600 tanks, 2,000 armored troop carriers, and 120 combat planes. A smarter president could have saved his country from disaster by simply closing the Roki Tunnel, those two miles under the Caucasus Mountains that were the only way in for the 58th. Instead, in poured 15,000 men and 150 tanks, and that shut up the mouse that roared.
All true, and yet Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was the main culprit. The debacle began not on August 8 but in July—with a vast military exercise, Caucasus 2008, as dress rehearsal for the invasion. As a flanking maneuver, Moscow handed out thousands of passports to South Ossetians (legally Georgians) to have a nice PR gambit ready: “Aggressors? Us? We are just protecting the motherland’s citizens.”
So it’s come to this—the fourth Russian conquest of Georgia. The first bites weAleksandr II in 1864, and, after three years of independence, Georgia was grabbed by the Bolsheviks in 1921.
Let’s talk about continuity, which has to do with power politics, conquest, and domination, the ways of states since time immemorial, and the lens for the current Russian behavior. We now look back in disbelief at the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era of docility (1985–2000). How could we think that Russia would stop being Russia? Hark back to Friedrich Engels, the granddaddy of communism, targeting in 1890 the “steely stamina” behind Russia’s endless quest to make the country “vast, mighty, and feared—and to pave the way to world domination.” Listen to Aleksandr III, czar from 1881 to 1894, who famously proclaimed, “Russia has only two reliable allies— its army and navy.”
That phrase, which was repeated by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in 2003 at the time of the Iraq war, highlights what makes Putin tick. It’s power and advantage: if you’ve got it, use it—panzers, pipelines, and all. As the West turned to climate change and hunger, as it celebrated “soft power” and the cracking of sovereignty under the hammer blows of humanitarianism, Putin went back to hard power, using Russia’s fuel supplies to cow his neighbors from the Baltics via Belarus to Ukraine and tanks to reconquer what he claims is rightfully his. Today, it is Georgia. What will it be tomorrow? The former Soviet republic Azerbaijan, swimming on an ocean of oil? Kazakhstan, one of Europe’s critical gas suppliers via pipelines running through Georgia, the last conduit not controlled by Russia? How about Ukraine, now independent but historically the very core of Russia?
Those who have chastised Saakashvili for tweaking the bear are also pleading clemency for Putin. They invoke Russia’s humiliation in the Cold War, the loss of its empire (fourteen out of fifteen republics chose independence), and the forward march of NATO and the European Union across the former Iron Curtain. But does this mean Russia has a right to an empire? That its former vassals from the Baltic to Bulgaria have no right to autonomy and safety?
Forty years ago, the Brezhnev doctrine proclaimed “once socialist, always socialist” as a pretext for crushing Prague Spring. Shall we now have a Putin doctrine that insists “once Russian, always Russian”? Even the propitiators would not savor this kind of retro imperialism. Nor is the West as powerless as the handwringers pretend. The first order of business must be massive reconstruction aid to Georgia. Saakashvili may be a fool, but he is a democratic one and a lot better than a Putin puppet. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right when she pronounced in Tbilisi: “Georgia will be a member of NATO; it wants to be one.”
Such confidence-building measures should also extend to the new NATO members. To avoid provoking the bear, the alliance did not station its troops in Poland, for instance. Now is the time to build the infrastructure for rapid deployment and to practice swift reinforcement. It is more important to reassure Poland than to pet Putin. Russia must also remove all its forces from Georgia or face diplomatic quarantine and suspension of institutional dialogues.
Isn’t this awfully soft stuff? Yes, but it will be very lonely for neo-Czar Vladimir if, like Aleksandr, he wants to rely only on his army and navy. Win-win, to paraphrase Churchill, is better than war-war. And Putin might benefit from recalling another leader, an American one, who in his first term also thought that raw power would conquer all.