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Inspiration And Danger In Georgia

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The nation of Georgia is a place of inspiration and danger. I saw both in a single hour.

I was in Tbilisi's Freedom Square during President Bush's visit in May 2005, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried. During the Georgian national anthem, the speaker system broke down and tens of thousands of Georgians movingly sang that song without music -- a song that had been illegal to sing under Soviet occupation.

It is shocking to imagine those joyful people now bombed, fearful and occupied.

At the same event, an assassination attempt was made against President Bush. A man threw a grenade wrapped in a handkerchief. Bush was behind a bulletproof shield but within the blast radius of the weapon. The grenade was live but did not explode -- or maybe the explosion in Georgia was just delayed.

A few days ago I spoke with Ambassador Fried -- one of America's finest diplomats -- on his way back from Georgia, after tense negotiations. Sounding exhausted from a "tough few days," he described the French-sponsored cease-fire as flawed but important. He predicted that in 10 years the invasion would be seen as a strategic mistake because it will have branded Russia "as a rogue." Of the Russian government, he vented: "Picking on weak Georgia -- is this the thing that makes them proud?"

Georgia badly miscalculated in this crisis. President Mikheil Saakashvili believed he could quickly gobble up his breakaway provinces through military force, just as he did in Georgia's southwest four years ago. He is a hothead who acted against American advice.

But it was Russia that provoked this provocation, for which it was thoroughly prepared. In December 2007, Russia suspended its adherence to a treaty that required it to report the massing of its troops along borders. Two months before the invasion, hundreds of Russian engineers were engaged in repairing railroad bridges eventually used by Russian troops.

Vladimir Putin is a leader defined and consumed by his grievances, from European missile defense to Kosovo. And now he has adopted the ideology and tactics of the schoolyard bully -- trying to restore Russian self-respect by beating up the weak. It is pathetic and dangerous in equal parts. It has also been a military success. Bush administration officials are now debating how to turn Russia's tactical victory into a strategic defeat.

In the short term, this involves denying Russia some things it wants, such as a coup that deposes Saakashvili. It also involves achieving some things Russia doesn't want, particularly the deployment of international monitors and eventually peacekeepers in the breakaway regions. Russian troops, after all, are not peacekeepers but combatants.

But there also needs to be a broader strategic consequence for Russia. Russia is attempting to combine 19th-century adventurism with membership in 21st-century international institutions. America needs to prove that is not possible -- to demonstrate that there is no place for czarism in the Group of Eight or the World Trade Organization.

Few question this goal, but there are many questions about the method. Does a direct assault on Russia's prickly pride make things worse or better? Should America pick a bruising public fight over G-8 membership or simply begin acting through the G-7, as Secretary Rice has already begun to do? Should America announce its opposition to Russian WTO membership, or merely stop pushing for it?

The worst option would be to excuse Russia by blaming ourselves. NATO expansion did not cause Russian belligerence. The desire to be part of NATO in liberated Europe was fueled, in part, by a justified fear of Russian belligerence. Citizens of the Baltic states, for example, are now glad that NATO expanded with relative speed, or they might be next on Putin's list. Again and again in European history, there has been a temptation to sacrifice the freedom of small countries to the interests of great powers. And it generally hasn't worked out very well, for them or for us.

Georgia has been foolish. But Russia's crude overreach has had one good effect -- revealing the courage of others. Poland has quickly upgraded its relations with America, even under nuclear threat from Russia. Ukraine has been defiant, even though Russia still makes claims on Crimea. These nations have recent memories of Russian national "pride." And their courage should provoke our own.

michaelgerson@cfr.org

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