Contrary to what some believe, the invasion of Georgia was not a response to an unwarranted provocation, but the boiling over of political and psychological undercurrents that have been rapidly gaining strength in Russia.
Buoyed by their unchecked power, possessing untold natural wealth and flush with oil money, the Russian leadership is on a mission to reestablish Moscow’s dominance in the former Soviet sphere of influence. This ambition is not as far-fetched as it may seem. A number of European countries are already heavily depended on Russia due to their reliance on the country’s natural gas and oil.
The Russians for their part have shown ready willingness to intimidate their customers by shutting off the valves to get their way. Such hardball tactics come naturally, since many in Moscow’s ruling elites hail from the former Soviet regime. At the top of the list is Vladimir Putin, a former communist and KGB colonel. A striking example of how little people change could be seen two years ago at a lavish party given in honor of former KGB agents. During his remarks, Mr. Putin praised many “glorious pages” and “bright examples of true heroism” in the history of Russia's infamous security services.
Up until now Russia sought to control the internal affairs of its neighbors mostly by electoral subversion and intimidation – including a probable poisoning – of pro-Western candidates. It has now entered an era of brazen military expansionism of which Georgia is the inaugural salvo. Moscow has already sent out the word that it has some unfinished business to take care of in Ukraine and Belarus and even threatened nuclear strikes against Poland and the Czech Republic as a response to their consent to host parts of the ballistic defense shield.
Some of our commentators have called for America’s retreat from Eastern Europe, because they think that entering into a fight with Russia is not in our interest at this time. A few have even gone so far as to blame the United States for Moscow’s belligerence, claiming that we have been unduly interfering with its vision for that part of the world. This is what Pat Buchanan wrote recently:
A resurgent Russia is no threat to any vital interests of the United States. It is a threat to an American Empire that presumes some God-given right to plant U.S. military power in the backyard or on the front porch of Mother Russia. Who rules Abkhazia and South Ossetia is none of our business. As of 1991, the oil of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan belonged to Moscow. Can we not understand why Putin would smolder as avaricious Yankees built pipelines to siphon the oil and gas of the Caspian Basin through breakaway Georgia to the West? For a dozen years, Putin & Co. watched as U.S. agents helped to dump over regimes in Ukraine and Georgia that were friendly to Moscow.
Inherent in this thinking is the assumption that Russia has the right to decide the affairs and destiny of its neighbors. But those who subscribe to this view overlook a crucial fact: Those countries are independent, sovereign states with an intrinsic right to self-determination. As such their people are entitled to freely decide the path they wish to follow. And when given a true choice, the populations of Russia’s neighbors almost invariably go for democracy and capitalism.
Buchanan’s claims notwithstanding, America has not been sabotaging Moscow-friendly politicians. They have been rejected by voters who still vividly remember the impoverishment and pain they had to endure under Soviet totalitarianism. Russians and their sympathizers have been long despised in Georgia and for good reasons. Ask an ordinary Georgian what he thinks of Russia and there is a good chance he will spit in response. The current Russian leadership does not want to accept this, however, and would instead like to see that the former vassals still toe the Kremlin’s line.
Buchanan’s advice in the face of this reality is to simply bow out in order to accommodate the Kremlin’s dislike of democracy. But can America really afford to say to Georgia and other former Soviet satellites: “Sorry, but we can’t support your struggle for freedom, because it may anger the totalitarians in Moscow.”
We can be certain that the annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will not quench Russia’s imperialistic ambitions. But if we abandon Georgia, why stop there? Why not also concede Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. And why also not Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. In fact, why not just give up on the whole of the Eastern block? Once it is safely under Russian control, Putin and Buchanan may finally stop complaining about America’s meddling in Russia’s backyard.
“For a decade, some of us have warned about the folly of getting into Russia's space and getting into Russia's face. The chickens of democratic imperialism have now come home to roost – in Tbilisi,” wrote Buchanan in a recent column. But it just could be that standing up for freedom is never a “folly” – but a legitimate and decent thing to do.
Mr. Buchanan may also recall that until not so long ago Russia itself aspired to democracy and was eager to integrate into the democratic community of nations. At various times during the last decade it expressed a desire to join the G7 group, NATO, the World Trade Organization and the European Union among others. The West for its part has gone to great lengths to accommodate Russia’s expressed wishes. Russia, for instance, was admitted into the G7 (making it the G8) even though it did not quite meet the standard. In 2004, it was given a significant role in NATO through the framework of the NATO-Russia Council which granted Moscow an equal voice in a number of important areas. Such was Russia’s apparent earnestness that at the signing ceremony George Bush gushed: "Two former foes are now joined as partners, overcoming 50 years of division and a decade of uncertainty."
But a few years ago things took a bad turn in Moscow and the country now strains under the hand of autocrats who have come to regard democracy as a major inconvenience. Should America abandon her regional allies just because our friendship may irritate those who currently rule in the Kremlin? Should it be our new foreign policy to dump allied governments whenever their totalitarian neighbors scoff at their democratic aspirations or alliance with the United States?
This is not to suggest that we rush into war with Russia tomorrow, but it needs to be made forcefully known that we will never compromise on the autonomy of its sovereign neighbors. America must make it clear that brazen military expansionism will in due course elicit commensurate response.
To let Putin & Co. have their way in Georgia would not only betray much of what we stand for as a country, but it would also mean a very serious problem in the future. As Russia controls more and more countries, its expansiveness and belligerence are only guaranteed to grow, and it is very likely that we would eventually face Cold War II. We would do well to remember that during the first Cold War, the world came several times perilously close to the brink of annihilation. A reprise must not be allowed, because the next time around we may not be as lucky.