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Withdrawal Syndrome

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"EUROPE CAN be proud of this success," French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote in our newspaper yesterday, referring to his negotiation of a cease-fire between Russia and Georgia. The congratulations may have been premature. Yesterday, in a by-now depressingly familiar pattern, Russian officials, up to and including the president, announced the withdrawal of forces from Georgia, while in Georgia itself there was no sign of withdrawal.

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On the contrary, Russian forces continued to dig in and loot as they occupied a large swath of Georgian territory. They remained in control of the central city of Gori and the western city of Senaki. They moved tanks into Igoeti, 22 miles from the capital of Tbilisi. They have wrecked the rails on a bridge of the main east-west railroad and taken control of the main east-west highway, essentially cutting off most trade and transport in Georgia. They have seized the Inguri power plant, which provides 78 percent of Georgia's electricity. Meanwhile, as disturbing reports of rapes and murders of civilians continue to seep out of Russian-controlled South Ossetia, the Russians blocked a visit to the region by the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

What does Russia hope to gain by this partial occupation of a tiny neighboring country? Russian President Dmitry Medvedev must understand that his international reputation is not enhanced by the enormous gap between his statements and reality. The offsetting benefits that he, or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, perceives must be large. It may be that by asserting squatters' rights in Georgia, Russia hopes to enhance its negotiating position that Georgia's territorial integrity should no longer be respected. It may hope that by wrecking Georgia's economy, it can spark an uprising against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the elected leader whom Mr. Putin despises. Russia may just want to drive home the lesson to small neighboring states that they should follow Russia's lead, or else.

In the long run, this will not help Russia's standing anywhere. A telling sign came with the release of a prominent political opponent from prison by Belarus's dictator; if even he is looking to open a channel to the West, Russia's neighbors are indeed nervous. But Georgia cannot wait for the long run to arrive. The West -- the International Monetary Fund, the United States, the European Union -- must help Georgia's economy withstand the pressure, and it must make clear, including at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers today, that there can be no business as usual with Russia while this military campaign goes on. "This withdrawal has to be carried out without delay," Mr. Sarkozy wrote in The Post yesterday. "For me, this point is not negotiable." Russia seems set on putting Mr. Sarkozy's determination to the test.


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