Aggression in Georgia

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

LAST MONTH, NATO sent a muddled message to Ukraine and Georgia, fragile European democracies that are seeking membership in the Western alliance. Pressed by President Bush, a NATO summit meeting issued a statement declaring that the two countries "will become members of NATO" someday. But the alliance also deferred the requests of their governments for "membership action plans," the bureaucratic vehicle for joining, at the insistence of France and Germany -- which made it clear they were deferring to Russian objections.

Russian President Vladimir Putin read NATO's ambivalence exactly as Georgia's president predicted he would -- as a sign of weakness. He has responded by escalating Moscow's campaign against Georgia's sovereignty, intended to force it back into the Kremlin's sphere of influence. Last week, Mr. Putin issued a decree establishing legal ties with the governments of two separatist regions of Georgia, a major step toward either recognizing them as independent states or annexing them to Russia. On Sunday, according to Georgian authorities, a Russian MiG-29 warplane operating over one of the regions, Abkhazia, shot down an unmanned Georgian reconnaissance aircraft.

Russia has backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their rebellions against Georgia ever since Georgia became an independent country after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It has dispatched its own personnel to head ministries in the separatist regions and issued passports to many of their remaining citizens. Now it is treating the provinces as if they were autonomous Russian republics and attacking Georgia's aircraft as if they were over the territory of Russia, rather than in Georgia. Mr. Putin clearly expects that Georgia's would-be Western allies will take no concrete steps to defend it -- and will shrink from any further step to bring it into NATO.

So far he's right. The Bush administration, the European Union and NATO duly issued statements last week expressing concern about Mr. Putin's legal decree and asking that it be reversed. Yesterday, they said they were asking the Russian government for an explanation of the downing of the unmanned aircraft; Moscow's initial denial of responsibility was hard to reconcile with the video of the incident posted by Georgia on the Internet. Yet démarches won't change Russian behavior.

The appropriate and proportionate response is for NATO to take its own concrete steps toward integrating Georgia and Ukraine. An alliance meeting in December is due to reconsider the issue; the Bush administration should insist that a decision on membership action plans for the two nations be made then. It should also propose a new international mechanism for resolving Georgia's dispute with its provinces, one that cannot be dominated by Russia. If it shrinks from challenging Mr. Putin's actions, NATO will allow a new line to be drawn in Europe -- one that leaves Georgia and Ukraine on the wrong side.

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