Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Staring Down the Russians

The end of the Cold War was supposed to usher in a new age in which the major powers would no longer dictate to their neighbors how to run their affairs. That is why Russia's invasion of Georgia is so tragic and so potentially ominous. Russia is now on watch: Will it continue to rely on coercion to achieve its imperial aims or is it willing to work within the emerging international system that values cooperation and consensus?

Moscow's ruthless attempt to suborn, subdue and subordinate this tiny, independent democracy is reminiscent of Stalin's times. The assault on Georgia is similar to what Stalin's Soviet Union did to Finland in 1939: in both cases, Moscow engaged in an arbitrary, brutal and irresponsible use of force to impose domination over a weaker, democratic neighbor. The question now is whether the global community can demonstrate to the Kremlin that there are costs for the blatant use of force on behalf of anachronistic imperialist goals.

This conflict has been brewing for years. Russia has deliberately instigated the breakup of Georgian territory. Moscow has promoted secessionist activities in several Georgian provinces: Abkhazia, Ajaria and, of course, South Ossetia. It has sponsored rebellious governments in these territories, armed their forces and even bestowed Russian citizenship on the secessionists. These efforts have intensified since the emergence in Georgia of a democratic, pro-Western government. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's resentment toward Georgia and its President, the U.S.-educated Mikheil Saakashvili, has seemingly become a personal obsession.

The international community has not done enough to push back. In recent weeks, a series of incidents along the fragile cease-fire lines that cut across Georgian territory helped prompt the escalation of violence, including Georgia's abortive effort to remove the "government" of South Ossetia, a small region with a population of about 70,000 people. That rash action was perhaps unwise, but it is evident from Russia's military response that Moscow was waiting for such an act to provide a pretext for the use of force. Large Russian contingents quickly swept into South Ossetia and then into Georgia, sending tanks to Gori and bombing Gori and the capital, Tbilisi.

Russia's aggression toward Georgia should not be viewed as an isolated incident. The fact is, Putin and his associates in the Kremlin don't accept the post-Soviet realities. Putin was sincere when he declared some time ago that in his view, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century." Independent democracies like Georgia and Ukraine, for the Putin regime, are not only historical anomalies, but also represent a direct political threat.

Ukraine could well be the next flash point. The Russian leadership has already openly questioned whether it needs to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. Russian leaders have also remarked that Crimea, a part of Ukraine, should once again be joined to Russia. Similarly, Russian pressure on Moldova led to the effective partition of that small former Soviet republic. Moscow is also continuing to try to economically isolate central Asian neighbors like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. And the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been the object of various threats from Russia, including economic sanctions and disruptive cyberwarfare.

The stakes are high. Ultimately, the independence of the post-Soviet states is at risk. Russia seems committed to the notion that there should be some sort of supranational entity, governed from the Kremlin, that would oversee much of the former Soviet territories. This attitude reflects in part the intense nationalistic mood that now permeates Russia's political élite. Vladimir Putin, former President and now Prime Minister, is riding this nationalist wave, exploiting it politically and propagating it with the Russian public. Some now even talk of a renewed Russian military presence in Cuba as a form of retaliation against the U.S. for its support of the independence of the post-Soviet states.

For the West, especially the U.S., the conflict between Russia and Georgia poses both moral and geostrategic challenges. The moral dimension is self-evident: a small country that gained its independence only recently, after almost two centuries of Russian domination, deserves international support that goes beyond simple declarations of sympathy. Then there are questions of geostrategy. An independent Georgia is critical to the international flow of oil. A pipeline for crude oil now runs from Baku in Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The link provides the West access to the energy resources of central Asia. If that access is cut, the Western world will lose an important opportunity to diversify its sources of energy.

The West needs to respond to Russia's aggression in a clear and determined manner. That doesn't mean with force. Nor should it fall into a new cold war with Russia. But the West, particularly the U.S., should continue to mobilize the international community to condemn Russia's behavior. Presidential candidates Barack Obama (whom I support) and John McCain should endorse President George W. Bush's efforts to oppose Russia's actions and form a bipartisan stand on this issue. It is unfortunate that some of the candidates' supporters are engaging in pointless criticism of each other's public statements on the Georgia crisis. This is too important for that.

It is premature to specify what precise measures the West should adopt. But Russia must be made to understand that it is in danger of becoming ostracized internationally. This should be a matter of considerable concern to Russia's new business élite, who are increasingly vulnerable to global financial pressure. Russia's powerful oligarchs have hundreds of billions of dollars in Western bank accounts. They would stand to lose a great deal in the event of a Cold War–style standoff that could conceivably result, at some stage, in the West's freezing of such holdings.

At some point, the West should consider the Olympic option. If the issue of Georgia's territorial integrity is not adequately resolved (by, for example, the deployment in South Ossetia and Abkhazia of a truly independent international security force replacing Russian troops), the U.S. should contemplate withdrawing from the 2014 Winter Games, to be held in the Russian city of Sochi, next to the violated Georgia's frontier. There is a precedent for this. I was part of the Carter Administration when we brandished the Olympic torch as a symbolic weapon in 1980, pulling out of the Summer Games in Moscow after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had planned a propaganda show reminiscent of Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin. America's boycott delivered a body blow to President Leonid Brezhnev and his communist system and prevented Moscow from enjoying a world-class triumph.

The Georgian crisis is a critical test for Russia. If Putin sticks to his guns and subordinates Georgia and removes its freely elected President — something Putin's Foreign Minister has explicitly called for — it is only a question of time before Moscow turns up the heat on Ukraine and the other independent but vulnerable post-Soviet states. The West has to respond carefully but with a moral and strategic focus. Its objective has to be a democratic Russia that is a constructive participant in a global system based on respect for sovereignty, law and democracy. But that objective can be achieved only if the world makes clear to Moscow that a stridently nationalistic Russia will not succeed in any effort to create a new empire in our postimperial age.

Brzezinski, who was National Security Adviser to President Carter, is co-author, with Brent Scowcroft, of America and the World, to be published in September