Russia's War of Opportunity

The Russian invasion of its former satellite, Georgia, is still under way despite the supposed cease-fire and Russian denials of further military aggression. Speaking early Tuesday, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appealed to the European Union and other international groups to intervene, asking for mediation. But, he said, “Russia isn’t ready” for that.

And it clearly isn’t. Later Tuesday, according to a report in the International Herald Tribune, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saakashvili had to be forced from office before violence could end. Lavrov, “…said Russia can no longer view ‘a man who issued orders to commit war crimes’ as a negotiating partner and therefore ‘without the departure of Saakashvili it is impossible to stop the conflict in South Ossetia’.”

Saakashvili, who is apparently more knowledgeable of history than the heads of state to whom he appeals, said the Georgians would never allow their nation to be broken into pieces. Russia says its attacks have stopped, but — as President Bush said Wednesday morning — it’s clear that they have not.

Russia makes war in Georgia now because now it is an opportune time and place, where NATO is incapable of doing anything about it because Georgia is far away, beyond the limited reach of most of its members, and America is tied up in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Putin is an oiligarch: an autocrat enabled by the West’s insatiable thirst for energy to fund his war machine and make his wars when chance permits. His immediate goal is to control the oil pipelines in Georgia through which much of Europe’s oil passes. Control those pipelines and you have enormous political and economic leverage over Western Europe.

Putin has been enabled by a President whose misjudgment of Putin’s character was profound. In their first meeting, which occurred in June 2001, President Bush said of Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue…I was able to get a sense of his soul.” And in May 2005, after another meeting with Putin, Bush said, “I had a long talk with Vladimir there in Slovakia about democracy and about the importance of democracy. And as you remember at the press conference…he stood up and said he strongly supports democracy. I take him for his word.”

It may be unfair, but it is nevertheless necessary, to not flinch from comparing those words to another, frighteningly similar quote. “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” That quote is from Neville Chamberlain about a conversation with Hitler, quoted from Feiling’s “Life of Neville Chamberlain” in Winston Churchill’s “The Gathering Storm.”

George W. Bush is certainly no Neville Chamberlain. And Putin is probably more Bonaparte than Hitler. But Putin’s script for invading Georgia is taken from the German monster’s that was acted out in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and paved the way for his invasion of Poland in 1939.

Both Medvedev — Putin’s puppet — and Putin blame the Georgian raids into separatist South Ossetia for Russia’s "response," though it’s quite obvious that Russia’s broad-scale invasion has been in the works for months.

Russia is not only rolling out its new arsenal of conventional weapons, it’s also loosing upon us its Cold War formula of agitprop and lies. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last president, wrote for the Washington Post Tuesday that it was not Russia that began the violence, that Russian tanks crashing through Georgian buildings and Russian artillery killing civilians was not only moral but necessary to protect civilians from harm.

Gorbachev wrote:

Through all these years, Russia has continued to recognize Georgia’s territorial integrity. Clearly, the only way to solve the South Ossetian problem on that basis is through peaceful means. Indeed, in a civilized world, there is no other way…

What happened on the night of Aug. 7 is beyond comprehension. The Georgian military attacked the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali with multiple rocket launchers designed to devastate large areas. Russia had to respond. To accuse it of aggression against "small, defenseless Georgia" is not just hypocritical but shows a lack of humanity.

Gorbachev, reading Putin’s script, echoes the wails of another era.

By 1938, Adolf Hitler’s territorial demands regarding Austria and his appetite for the Sudetenland region of Northwest Czechoslovakia had grown intense. On March 20, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister, saying, “You have only to look at the map to see that nothing that France or we could do could possibly save Czechoslovakia from being overrun by the Germans, if they wanted to do it. I have therefore abandoned any idea of giving guarantees to Czechoslovakia or to the French in connection with her obligations to that country.” Chamberlain refused this guarantee to Czechoslovakia, but gave just that sort of guarantee to Poland a year later.

Chamberlain’s guarantee to Poland was a confession of incompetence: a last-minute action to stave off a war that was ensured by his earlier indecision and inaction. Appeasement and dithering — the Chamberlain formula — result in deaths by wartime violence.

On September 18, 1938, Czech frontier posts were attacked by the German-Sudeten “freikorps”, according to Robert Goralski’s indispensable “World War Two Almanac.” Four days later, while Chamberlain met with Hitler in Munich, the “freikorps” crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. On October 1, German troops occupied the Sudeten region of some 10,000 square miles and populated by about 3.5 million people (including, according to Goralski, about 700,000 Czechs.)

Russian allegations of Georgians’ attacks on “peacekeepers” and civilians in Georgia were the justification for the Russian invasion. And now Russia — which occupies much of Georgia and is advancing further — is demanding that the democratically-elected Georgian government be toppled.

Georgia was a valuable American ally. Its 2000 troops were a significant part of the Multinational Force in Iraq. Dimitri Medvedev said Tuesday, “The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses; its military has been scattered.”

There is a lot that should — must — be done to blunt Putin’s aggression. President Bush took a few good steps on Wednesday morning.

Sending Secretary of State Rice to France to meet with EU President Sarkozy is a very poor substitute for calling a meeting of the leaders of the NATO nation. But directing Defense Secretary Gates to send — by military aircraft and naval vessels — humanitarian relief (and effectively daring Russia to interfere with it) is a bold and entirely appropriate step. But these actions are not enough.

President Bush should be on Air Force One going to London, having called together all the leaders of the NATO nations. There must be a NATO response — not just an EU response — to Russian aggression in NATO’s back yard. All the other Eastern European nations, especially Ukraine — likely Putin’s next target and another former Soviet satellite and applicant for NATO membership — are watching.

The NATO nations should agree to punish Russia the only way it can, by economic action. If, for example, Europe cut off gasoline exports to Iran — linking the cutoff explicitly to the Russian action in Georgia — it would hurt Putin immensely. This could revive NATO; more likely is that this incident will go unresponded by the NATO nations, and the alliance fall before Putin’s aggression.

President Bush was tough on Wednesday morning, saying that Russia’s actions are inconsistent with its move toward democracy. He called on Russia to leave the elected Georgian government undisturbed. But he needs to say more, and more clearly.

The President should say that Russia can no longer be regarded as a friend, far less an ally. He needs to say that unless Russian forces remove themselves from Georgia forthwith, leaving the elected government in place, Russia is our adversary.