by Ali Meyer | Russia's imperialist ambitions need to be stopped.
After weeks of escalating skirmishes on the border of Georgia and its breakaway province, South Ossetia, Georgian forces launched an invasion on August 8th to recapture the territory, which is internationally recognized as part of Georgia. By nightfall Georgians claimed to have seized Tskhinvali, the capital city of South Ossetia. Russia, which has historically been supportive of the breakaway region, immediately responded by conducting airstrikes on Georgia and sending in troops and armed vehicles.
The outraged Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili decried the Russian response, saying Russians “have been continuously attacking the town of Gori, in the middle of Georgia, which has nothing to do with South Ossetia.” The United States, many European nations and NATO condemned the Russian violence but did not threaten any sort of physical response; such actions are unreasonable in this situation.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, publicly blamed the Georgians for the Russian barrage of attacks. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he wrote that the Georgian army attacked the “sleeping city” of Tskhinvali, ignoring the skirmishes that had been occurring for weeks. Other Russian leaders have adopted the humanitarian rhetoric of the modern era. Vladimir Putin said that if Saddam Hussein was hanged “for destroying several Shiite villages,” Georgian leaders are guilty of much more. Another claimed that Russia could not watch acts of genocide committed in their neighborhood without interfering.
Although such claims sound compelling, Moscow is not historically home to a sensitive administration. The government showed pitiless indifference to actual genocides, blocking UN sanctions on Darfur, and was unconcerned with its allies’ actions in Iraq and Yugoslavia, not to mention its own violent military campaigns in Chechnya. Even Russia’s current actions in Georgia prove the preposterousness of their purported humanitarian intentions. Russia has perpetuated a conspicuous pattern in the last few weeks of agreeing to cease-fires with Georgia and promising to withdraw, only to leave troops in place and continue to attack a disarmed Georgia. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called attacking sites outside of South Ossetia, namely Georgia, “legitimate” because of the compromised safety of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia.
Experts agree that Russia’s goal in the conflict is twofold: it wants to destroy Georgia enough to replace the democratically elected president with a more pliable leader, and to illustrate the passivity of the West to neighboring countries. Georgia is being used as an example for other countries, like Ukraine, that are seeking to join NATO and other Western alliances. By showing that the West is passive, Russia is also cementing an unspoken right for itself to interfere in neighboring countries without international intervention.
The response of the United States, European nations, and NATO was to simply condemn Russian actions, which is clearly not a viable policy. Russian minister Sergey Lavrov clearly stated that “the US will have to choose between its virtual Georgia project and its much broader partnership with Russia.” The United States’ response to such an ultimatum seems to be leaning towards appeasement of Russia—no threats of force essentially means no real disagreement with Russian actions. This would naturally set a dangerous precedent, which would allow Russia to intervene in its neighbors’ affairs with no international meddling. The United States, united with other Western powers, needs to clearly and definitively work with the democratically elected Georgian government to force Russia out of its invaded territory.
An unresponsive West could also potentially have other ramifications. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas and the second largest oil exporter. Much of its oil comes from the Caucuses, Russia’s “near abroad.” Georgia and its neighbors are important intermediaries for the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea to world markets. If this fragile region were to be further disrupted or integrated into the Russian Federation, the world could feel a dramatic shift in its sources of energy.
The most important reason for the United States to act against Russian aggression is to uphold American credibility. Georgia is a true friend of the United States, and has been since its break from the Soviet Union. It has reached out to NATO and the European Union and has even sent troops to Iraq. If Georgia’s very existence can be threatened without any American action, the power of a friendship with the United States will quickly become worthless. Plus, America’s displeasure will matter even less, further pushing the country into superfluity. The repercussions of a weakened United States would be world-wide, and would affect countries from Israel to Saudi Arabia to Latin American and Eastern European states.
The United States needs to deny the legitimacy of Moscow’s legal and policy claims while supporting the democratically elected Georgian leadership without reservations. John McCain has already done this, condemning Russia’s actions as a new form of empire building. President Bush said that “Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world.” The United States, on principle, cannot allow aggression against free nations to go unchecked. It must work to stop the violence in Georgia and limit Russia’s ambitions for empire.
Ms. Meyer is a sophomore who has not yet declared a major.