LATE MONDAY night, a missile crashed into the ground near the village of Tsitelubani in Georgia. The weapon failed to detonate, but the event has nevertheless sparked new tensions between the small, democratic country and Russia, its former overlord to the north.
Details are still emerging, but the Georgian government says that radar records prove that a Russian Su-24 jet entered Georgian airspace from the northeast, dropped the missile and then returned to Russia. Georgian officials also claim that the recovered weapon was a Russian anti-radar missile designed for use with the Su-24, an aircraft not in Georgia's arsenal. There is speculation that the target was a nearby Georgian radar installation. The Russians, for their part, have insisted that the Georgians attacked themselves, a Kremlin defense that has become unsettlingly familiar and no more convincing. A U.S. official familiar with the case says that the Georgians' evidence is credible and that there is no evidence to support the Russians' story.
The missile incident disturbingly resembles a March incident in which a missile was fired at a government building in Abkhazia, a Georgian territory that is home to pro-Russian rebels. Then, too, the evidence pointed to Russian aggression, but a United Nations report stopped short of blaming Russia -- probably because the Russians had to sign off on the document.
By violating Georgian sovereignty, Moscow may hope to bait Georgia into responding with force of its own near an already tense border. Added conflict in the region could make Western governments nervous about Georgia's suitability to join NATO, membership being a key goal of pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili. So far, however, the Georgians have wisely limited themselves to releasing information and lodging diplomatic protests.
The United States and Europe should help Georgia bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council. And if, after a full vetting of the facts, it remains clear that the Russians are at fault, Georgia's aspirations for NATO membership should not be hampered. Indeed, stemming this sort of aggression is what NATO was set up to do.