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Brutality to Make a Point

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

It would have been an easy thing for the Russians to throw the Georgians out of the two disputed enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia is mighty; Georgia is not. Russia is huge; Georgia is tiny. The whole thing is a mismatch from the word go, and the Georgians -- when it is appropriate to do so -- have to be reminded that you do not poke a sleeping bear with a stick. Little nations ought to know their place.

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But the bombing, including areas near the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, is not merely disproportionate, it is purposely, studiously, coldly atrocious. It is meant to punish -- not as a deterrent, the Israeli approach to such things, but as a way to show the world that the old Russia is reasserting itself. This is the Russia that looks at Georgia no differently from the way the czars did or, for that matter, the way of that most infamous of Georgians, Stalin himself. This is a Russia that wants a friendly leader on its border. It wants Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to go.

The Russian invasion of Georgia is a breath of dank air from the rancid past. It reeks of spheres of interest and Metternichian understandings of how the world works and how power is exercised. It is also a refreshing reminder that sprinkling BMW dealerships hither and yon in this or that country does not, in the end, change the culture all that much. Russia, as my grandmother could have told George W. Bush, always fights dirty.

The reality of old has been greeted as shockingly new in Washington. The Bush administration's policy has been to seek NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, another former Soviet republic. This is yet another example of policy disconnected from national interests, not to mention reality. Russian bombs have rained down on Georgia. Would we go to war to stop that? No way. But that is the very reason for NATO. You hit one of our guys and we're going to hit you back. Britain? You bet. France? Certainly. Germany? Yes, indeed. Georgia? Give us some time to think about it.

World War I, whose origins are still open to debate, started in the Balkans, a remote region of Europe that was not worth even a minor war. The Caucasian region is similarly remote, another ethnic hodgepodge. It would make no sense to turn the Caucasus into a latter-day Balkans, and it makes no sense, either, to demonize Russia for doing what it has always done. The United States needs Moscow to continue its cooperation on Iran. In addition, we have to bear in mind what we would do under similar circumstances. In a way, the Caucasus is Russia's Latin America -- a sphere of influence asserted by its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.

The recognition of reality does not for a moment mean that Russia has to be given free rein. Although it is loath to admit it, Moscow needs the West -- for trade, certainly, but also for approval. Peter the Great built his capital to face Europe, and Putin, don't forget, was mayor of St. Petersburg. He likes the West. But he ought to be reminded that the West no longer likes him. That, too, is reality.

cohenr@washpost.com


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