Russia this week sought to reassert its dominance over the old Soviet sphere of influence by sending tanks and troops through Georgia’s renegade provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia sent Georgia’s small army into panicked retreat, and bombed and occupied cities inside Georgia before agreeing Tuesday to a French-sponsored cease-fire. President Bush called the invasion “unacceptable” and expressed “unwavering support” for Georgia’s government. But Georgia, a fledgling democracy with a U.S.-trained army and ambitions of joining NATO, was on its own. “My people feel let down by world democracies,” said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The invasion followed an attack last week by Georgian forces on pro-Russian separatists in South Ossetia, which has long sought independence from Georgia. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin—who was reported to have overseen the military operations—accused Georgia of war crimes, and of using tanks “to run over children and the elderly.” Ousting the pro-Western Saakashvili appeared to be Russia’s goal. “Saakashvili can no longer be our partner, and it would be better if he went,” Russia’s foreign minister said.
What the editorials said
Russia may not be the Evil Empire of old, said The Wall Street Journal, “but it is a Bonapartist power intent on dominating its neighbors and restoring its clout on the world stage.” Putin thinks the West cherishes his oil and influence over Iran too much to block these “Napoleonic ambitions.” President Bush should make it clear that we don’t. “Barring Russia’s long-desired entry into the World Trade Organization” would be a good step. Expelling Russia from the G-8 group of economic powers would be an even better one.
Saakashvili was a fool to bait the Russians, said The New York Times. “Because of his miscalculation,” Georgia will likely lose control of its rebellious provinces. But Russia’s attack was also “intended to bully Ukraine into dropping its NATO bid” and to cow other former Soviet satellites into submission. The U.S. and Europe must respond to this bullying by making it clear such aggression will not be tolerated.
What the columnists said
This war, like so much of modern geopolitics, was largely about petroleum, said Steven Pearlstein in The Washington Post. Russia controls the pipelines linking oil and natural-gas producers in former Soviet republics to the West. “With Europe already dependent on Russia for a quarter of its natural gas,” Western officials plotted a $12 billion pipeline through Georgia to transport gas from the Caspian Sea, circumventing the Russian monopoly. By crushing Georgia, Russia has shown investors that it could easily take out such a pipeline—which now probably will never be built.
The real goal, though, is power, said Alvaro Vargas Llosa in The New Republic Online. “Moscow’s foreign expansion is the logical continuation of authoritarian rule at home.” Riding a wave of resurgent Russian nationalism, Putin intends to re-establish Russia as a world power, controlling “everything that lies between the Baltic and the Caucasus.” Now the West has to decide whether to confront Russia, isolate it, or just write the entire region off.
Russia’s strategic stake in Georgia was no secret, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. So “it is worth asking what the Bush people were thinking when they egged on Mikheil Saakashvili” to pursue NATO membership and ally himself closely with the U.S. Even the most rudimentary diplomacy would have revealed that Putin would not tolerate a pro-American democracy on Russia’s border. We are now long overdue for a Moscow-Washington summit. “It’s staggering that no such talks have taken place so far this century.”
Russian troops had not withdrawn from Georgia as The Week went to press. With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her way to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Russia seemed disinclined to escalate the conflict by forcibly toppling the country’s government. Still, the attack augurs a new era in relations between the U.S. and Russia. “No one in the West wants a new Cold War,” said Ronald Asmus, who was responsible for NATO expansion in the Clinton administration. Nevertheless, he said, “We are in a new geopolitical competition in the old Soviet spheres of influence. We may lose Georgia.”