Russia Crosses The Line

Whatever Mistakes Georgia’s Government Has Made Cannot Justify Russia’s Actions

News | Richard Holbrooke, Ronald D. Asmus | September 2008

South Ossetian woman on August 10. (Photo: Maxim Shipenkov / EPA)

In weeks and years past, each of us argued that Russia was pursuing a policy of regime change toward Georgia and its pro-Western, democratically elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili. We predicted that, absent strong and unified Western diplomatic involvement, war was coming.

Now, tragically, a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia has happened. The West, especially the United States, could have prevented this war. Instead, regardless of whether it actually pulls back its troops to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia has crossed the Rubicon, making this a watershed moment in the West’s post-Cold War relations with Russia.

Exactly what triggered the fighting is unclear. Each side will argue its own version. But we know, without doubt, that Georgia was responding to repeated provocative attacks by South Ossetian separatists controlled and funded by the Kremlin. This was a not a war Georgia wanted; it had believed that it was slowly gaining ground in South Ossetia through a strategy of soft power.

Whatever mistakes Georgia’s government made cannot justify Russia’s actions. The Kremlin invaded a neighbor, an illegal act of aggression that violates the UN Charter and fundamental principles of cooperation and security in Europe.

Beginning a well-planned war (including cyber-warfare) as the Olympics were opening also violates the ancient tradition of a truce to conflict during the Games. Russia’s willingness to create a war zone 25 miles from the Black Sea city of Sochi, where it is to host the Winter Games in 2014, hardly demonstrates its commitment to Olympic ideals. In contrast, Russia’s timing suggests that Vladimir Putin seeks to accomplish its aggressive aims ahead of the US elections, thus avoid beginning relations with the next president on an overtly confrontational note.

Russia’s goal was not simply, as it claimed, to restore the status quo in South Ossetia. It was and remains regime change in Georgia. This is why it quickly opened a second front in the other disputed Georgian territory, Abkhazia, just south of Sochi. Its great goal is to replace Saakashvili – a man Putin despises – with a president more subject to Kremlin influence.  The current promised withdrawal does not mean it has abandoned that aim.

As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt pointed out, the Kremlin’s rationale for invading has parallels to the darkest chapters of Europe’s history. Having issued passports to tens of thousands of Abkhazians and South Ossetians, the Kremlin claims it intervened to protect them – a tactic reminiscent of one used by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II.

Russia wants to roll back democratic breakthroughs on its borders, to destroy any chance of further NATO or EU enlargement and to reestablish a sphere of hegemony over its neighbors. By trying to destroy a democratic, pro-Western Georgia, the Kremlin is sending a message that, in its part of the world, being close to America and the West does not pay.

This moment could well mark the end of an era in Europe during which Realpolitik and spheres of influence were supposed to be replaced by cooperative norms and a country’s right to choose its own path. Hopes for a more liberal Russia under President Dmitry Medvedev will need to be reexamined. His justification for the invasion reads more like Brezhnev than Gorbachev. Of course, no one wants a return to Cold War-style confrontation, but Russia’s behavior poses a direct challenge to European and international order.

What should the West do now? First, Georgia deserves the West’s solidarity and support. The West must insure that fighting does not resume, that Russia does indeed withdraw fully, and that Georgia’s territorial integrity within its current international border is preserved.  There must also be a major, coordinated transatlantic effort to help Georgia rebuild and recover.

Second, we should not pretend that Russia is a neutral peacekeeper in conflicts on its borders. Russia is part of the problem, not the solution. For too long, the Kremlin has used existing international mandates to pursue neo-imperial policies. The West must disavow these mandates and insist on truly neutral international forces, under the United Nations, to monitor a future cease-fire and to mediate.

Third, the West needs to counter Russian pressure on its neighbors, especially Ukraine -- most likely the next target in the Kremlin’s efforts to create a new sphere of hegemony. The US and the European Union must be clear that Ukraine and Georgia will not be condemned to some kind of gray zone.

Finally, the US and the EU must make clear that this kind of aggression will affect relations and Russia’s standing in the West. While Western military intervention in Georgia is out of the question – and no one wants a 21st-century version of the Cold War – Russia’s actions cannot be ignored. There is a vast array of political, economic and other areas in which Russia’s role and standing will have to be reexamined. The Kremlin must also be put on notice that its own prestige project – the Sochi Olympics – will be affected by its behavior.

Weak Western diplomacy and lack of transatlantic unity failed to prevent an avoidable war. Only strong transatlantic unity can stop this war and begin to repair the immense damage done. Otherwise, we can add one more issue to the growing list of the Bush administration’s foreign policy failures.


Richard Holbrooke, US ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration, writes a monthly column for The Washington Post. Ronald D. Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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