Blaming the victim is nothing new.
But, in the days since Russian tanks first rolled into democratic Georgia, we
have been rather surprised at the alacrity with which some--on both the left
and right--have blamed that tiny country for the onslaught, and the West for
encouraging Georgia's liberalization. That encouragement, it has been argued,
led Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili to believe he could use military
force to quell insurgents in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, thereby
all but guaranteeing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin's retaliatory assault.
This is not just a foolish argument, it is a pernicious one. It masks the true
nature of the conflict and assumes that all the actors in this drama are moral
equals. They are not.
Putin has been pressuring Georgia
for years. Indeed, Russian despots have long considered the southern Caucasus,
along with Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, their personal stomping
grounds. There is no need to rehearse the long, complicated, and bloody
history; suffice it to say that the tradition did not end with the Soviet
empire. In the Caucasus, for example, Russia almost certainly had a hand in the
fall of Georgian nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992, as well as
that of Azerbaijan's president Abulfaz Elchibey in 1993. Both were replaced by
pro-Moscow strongmen. But Russian hegemony over Georgia was upset in November
2003, when the pro-Western democrat Saakashvili came to power.
Saakashvili cuts a colorful figure.
And his rise set a powerful example. The Rose Revolution that ushered in a new
era for Georgia was the first of the "color revolutions" bringing
youthful democrats to Russia's near abroad. That is probably why Putin, who on
his borders seeks client autocracies, has done so much to undermine it. He has
used Georgia's territorial conflicts with the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia
and South Ossetia to weaken Saakashvili personally and undermine the Georgian
people's national aspirations. To that end, Russia began to distribute
passports to the Abkhazians and South Ossetians as early as 2004. It used its
power to appoint Russians and pro-Moscow locals to positions in the
territories' independent governments. And it built up its military presence in
both places under the guise of peacekeeping operations.
At first the warfare was economic.
"Trouble started brewing in 2006," writes Edward Lucas in The New
Cold War, "when from March to May Russia imposed an escalating series
of import restrictions, first on wine, vegetables, and fruits; then on
sparkling wine and brandy, finally Georgian mineral water--at the time one of
the country's most important exports." That July, Lucas continues,
"Russia abruptly closed the only legal land border crossing" with
Georgia. It was the equivalent of a blockade. Georgia had done nothing to
provoke these punitive measures. It was Saakashvili and democracy that offended
On September 27, 2006, Saakashvili
ordered the arrest of four Russian GRU officers whom he accused of plotting a
coup. He paraded them in front of the cameras. Moscow was not amused. Putin
recalled his ambassador from Tbilisi and, according to Lucas, "cut postal,
phone, and banking links with Georgia." Gazprom, the Russian energy giant,
announced a price spike specific to Georgia. The following month Putin's
government began to detain and expel ethnic Georgians living in Russia--more
than 2,300 of them, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Some were Russian citizens.
"Russian authorities denied basic rights to many of the detained,"
the authors from Human Rights Watch wrote, "including access to a lawyer
or the possibility of appealing the expulsion decision taken against them. Most
were given trials lasting only a few minutes. Georgians were held in sometimes
appalling conditions of detention and in some cases were subjected to threats and
other ill-treatment. Two Georgians died in custody awaiting expulsion."
In March 2007, Russian military
forces attacked villages in Abkhazia that had recently fallen under Georgian
control. This was an illegal act, and when the United Nations investigated the
incident Moscow did not cooperate. Another attack--one that failed--occurred in
Georgia proper, near Tbilisi, in August 2007. Russian intransigence followed
that incident, too.
Then, in April, Putin issued an
order that, according to Johns Hopkins professor Svante E. Cornell, treated
Abkhazia and South Ossetia "as parts of the Russian Federation." Also
around this time, Russian MiGs began destroying Georgian unmanned aerial
vehicles. Russia increased its troop deployment in Abkhazia. And in July, as Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice was about to visit Georgia, Russian jets flew over
South Ossetia in a show of force. Also that month, thousands of Russian troops
went to the Georgian frontier for so-called "training exercises."
According to the New York Times, Russian cyberattacks on Georgian
computer networks began "as early as July 20."
Such was the pattern of Russian
belligerence prior to Saakashvili's commitment of ground forces to South
Ossetia in early August. Russia views that decision, of course, as its casus
belli. But even here, the story may be more complicated than Georgian
provocation and Russian reaction. For his part, Saakashvili wrote in the Washington
Post last week that "a massive assault was launched on Georgian
settlements" in South Ossetia just hours after his government sent a peace
envoy to the territory.
"Our government then
learned," Saakashvili went on, "that columns of Russian tanks and
troops had crossed Georgia's sovereign borders. The thousands of troops, tanks
and artillery amassed on our border are evidence of how long Russia had been
planning this aggression." So Saakashvili sent in his troops, and the war
Whatever the precise sequence of
events, however, nothing Saakashvili did provided a reason for Putin to invade
Georgia proper; or to bomb Georgian targets in the days after the initial
ceasefire; or to charge Saakashvili with crimes against humanity; or to attempt
regime change in a democracy that abides by international norms and seeks
integration in the liberal international order. Nothing.
Nor is it true that the ultimate
blame for this conflict lies with the United States and its NATO and EU allies.
It is true that these nations and alliances encourage democratic governance,
free markets, and the promotion of human rights in all countries, including
those in Russia's near abroad. And it may well be that Russia sees many of the
independent states on its borders, so long under its hegemony, moving in a
liberal direction. But why does Russia feel threatened by this? And what say
ought Russia to have over the decisions of other governments to choose freedom
No one forced Georgia or Ukraine or
Poland or Latvia or Lithuania or Estonia to move toward Europe and the United
States. The elected leaders of those countries decided for themselves. And they
made that decision partly because they understand the distinctions between
dominance and submission, freedom and slavery, prosperity and penury,
aggression and comity. They lived those distinctions. Is it too much to ask
that we learn from our friends, and call a culprit a culprit and a victim a