Russia's Delusion

Thursday, August 28, 2008

IN TIME WITH Russia's unilateral recognition of the independence of the two Georgian provinces it invaded this month, President Dmitry Medvedev issued a statement, penned an op-ed and granted an unusual flurry of interviews. His intent was to justify Moscow's latest provocation of the West, which has been united in condemnation -- as was demonstrated yesterday by a statement by the Group of Seven industrial nations. Instead Mr. Medvedev merely revealed the dangerously arrogant and reckless mood that seems to have overtaken the Kremlin in recent weeks.

What's striking, first of all, is the spectacle of a leading head of state making statements that not only are lies but that are easily shown to be such. Over and over, Mr. Medvedev told interviewers that Georgian forces were guilty of "genocide" in South Ossetia. Yet by the count of an official Russian commission, the Ossetian dead numbered 133. In contrast, independent human rights groups have reported that Georgian villages both in and outside Ossetia have been subject to a violent ethnic cleansing campaign, and that thousands of civilians have been killed or driven from their homes by the Russian military offensive.

Mr. Medvedev flatly asserted that Russia had not violated the cease-fire deal he signed two weeks ago. But that agreement contains a provision calling for international talks about the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- and those talks had not begun when Mr. Medvedev abruptly issued the decree recognizing the provinces' independence. The president insisted that Russian troops had withdrawn from Georgia and were not blockading the port of Poti, though any observer can see the checkpoints Russian troops continue to operate there and throughout the country. He also claimed that U.S. ships that have been delivering humanitarian supplies were delivering weapons, a statement quickly dismissed as ludicrous by the White House.

The gross misstatements were accompanied by the assertion of a breathtakingly belligerent doctrine toward Russia's neighbors. Mr. Medvedev was asked by more than one journalist whether Russia's aggression might be directed at other neighboring states, such as Ukraine, Moldova or the Baltic members of NATO. He answered by noting that millions of Russians live outside the country, and he asserted the right as "commander in chief" to "protect the lives and dignity of our citizens." He stated to the BBC: "In certain cases I have no choice but to take these kinds of actions."

Those in the West who persist in blaming Georgia or the Bush administration for the present crisis ought to carefully consider those words -- and remember the history in Europe of regimes that have made similar claims. This is the rhetoric of an isolated, authoritarian government drunk with the euphoria of a perceived victory and nursing the delusion of a restored empire. It is convinced that the West is too weak and divided to respond with more than words. If nothing is done to restrain it, it will never release Georgia -- and it will not stop there.

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