RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin has never fully accepted the breakup of the Soviet Union, which he once called "the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century." Having consolidated power in Moscow by dismantling his country's nascent democracy, he has devoted himself in recent years to reestablishing the Kremlin's political and economic dominion over former Soviet republics that became independent in 1991. One particular target is the small Caucasian state of Georgia, which has infuriated Mr. Putin by embracing liberal democracy and turning toward the West.
A Russian attempt to strangle Georgia has been slowly escalating. Moscow banned Georgia's principal exports in March and has been encouraging two separatist regions, protecting their rebel regimes with troops and granting Russian citizenship to many of their residents. Last winter Georgia's natural gas supplies, which come from Russia, were disrupted for weeks by sabotage of pipelines.
Now comes a new escalation: Last week the Georgian government announced that it caught a number of Russian army officers based in Georgia engaging in blatant espionage activities. When it arrested four of them, Mr. Putin seized the occasion to withdraw his ambassador and many other diplomats. He also closed air, sea and land links between the two countries and suspended the issuance of visas. His rubber-stamp parliament is taking steps to block remittances by the hundreds of thousands of Georgian workers in Russia.
Yesterday, pressed by the Bush administration, Georgia allowed the Russian officers to return home. But Russia continued its bellicose acts, while improbably claiming that it -- and not the poor nation of 5 million it is besieging -- is the victim of aggression. In a telephone conversation, Mr. Putin told President Bush that "it was unacceptable for other countries to take steps that Georgia could interpret as support," according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Mr. Bush ought to reject that imperious warning. U.S. diplomats in fact have spent the past several days urging compromise and caution on the part of Georgia's sometimes impulsive president, Mikheil Saakashvili. But the United States has not only the right but also the duty to support Georgia's independence and Mr. Saakashvili's aspirations to consolidate liberal democracy and steer his country toward membership in NATO. As the Georgian president rightly said yesterday, "The message to Russia is: 'Enough is enough.' "