America’s stake in the Caucasus war just went up.
In the past 24 hours, the Russians launched offensive operations beyond the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, marking a dramatic expansion in their war aims — well beyond the putative casus bellum of protecting Russian citizens. (It should be recalled that these “citizens” are Abkhaz and Ossetian locals who were issued Russian passports without, for the most part, ever setting foot in Russia.)
The town of Gori, in Georgia proper, is apparently the first to face a determined Russian assault. Georgian Zugdidi, just south of the second front erupting from Abkhazia, is also apparently occupied, though reportedly ceded by fleeing Georgians. It’s Gori, though, where the real fight is: and a look at the terrain around Stalin’s hometown tells why. This map shows Gori at the southern end of the plain to which the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali is the northern entrance. (Recall that this war began with a Georgian assault on Tskhinvali; they’ve been tossed clear down against the mountains in two days.) Gori sits on a pass leading into a long valley that slopes toward the southeast. About 50 miles at the other end of that valley, against that long blue lake in the lower right-hand corner of the map, is the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
In light of the recent, and somewhat frantic, Georgian offers of truce, there aren’t many reasons to take Gori if the Russians are merely interested in the direct protection of their clients. Though it wouldn’t be entirely out of character for the Russian army to simply bludgeon a city because it’s there, the logic of events lends credence to what America’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, charged today: that the Russians seek the overthrow of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The synopsis of the exchange, at the UN Security Council’s emergency meeting on Georgia, between Khalilzad and Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, makes for chilling reading:
Mr. KHALIZAD (United States) …. went on to say that Mr. Churkin had referred to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s phone conversations with United States State Secretary Condoleezza Rice this morning, a conversation that raised serious questions about Russia’s objectives in the conflict. Mr. Lavrov had said that President Saakashvili, the democratically elected President of Georgia, “must go”, which was completely unacceptable and “crossed the line”. Was Russia’s objective regime change in Georgia, the overthrow of the democratically elected Government of that country?
Mr. CHURKIN (Russian Federation) …. said “regime change” was an American expression that Russia did not use. As was known from history, different leaders came to power either democratically or semi-democratically, becoming an obstacle to their people’s emergence from difficult situations. The Russian Federation was encouraged by Mr. Khalilzad’s public reference to that, which meant he was ready to bring it into the public realm.
Mr. KHALILZAD (United States) asked whether the goal of the Russian Federation was to change the leadership of Georgia.
Mr. ALASANIA (Georgia) said that, as he had heard Mr. Churkin, the question asked and the answer received had confirmed that what Russia was seeking was to change the democratically elected Georgian Government.
Mr. CHURKIN (Russian Federation) suggested that he had given a complete response and perhaps the United States representative had not been listening when he had given his response, perhaps he had not had his earpiece on.
Dealing with Churkin is rarely pleasant, but the facts in Georgia now — and especially the assault on Gori — render this episode something more than one of his usual tantrums.
Here’s where America’s stake goes up. As I noted when this war kicked off in earnest, the Georgian state blundered into this with eyes open, and Saakashvili is not the sort of man to whom we ought to harness our own policy. Were the Russians content to merely fulfill their putative war aims of 48 hours ago, and strictly occupy Abkhaz and Ossetian territory — in other words, were Moscow content to deliver a Kosovo for a Kosovo — this would be painful but acceptable, and not worth a showdown between America and Russia. A Russian overthrow of the Georgian government, coupled with what must be some sort of occupation, is altogether different. It would mark the explicit debut of Russia as a post-Cold War revisionist state in fact, and not just in rhetoric; it would be an explicit repudiation of the post-World War Two order in Europe, as the first inter-state aggression of its sort since 1945; and it would be an explicit warning to those seeking America’s friendship and the aegis of NATO.
Defending the standards of Europe’s long peace, preserving the strategic outcomes of the Cold War, and upholding the credibility of the institutional guarantor of that peace and the winner of that war: these are things worth acting for — and yes, worth fighting for.
None of this is to argue that the United States must now fight Russia for Georgia. On a pragmatic level, there is no American manpower to spare, and the risk of such a confrontation spreading is too great. The Vice President has told Saakashvili that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered,” and one hopes he has not leapt direct to the idea of armed force. (There is, though, much the West may do to help the Georgians help themselves short of that, from imagery sharing to signals intelligence to resupply.) But we must understand and swiftly come to grips with the realities of what this war costs us, and the institutions — NATO in particular — that protect us.
Already we see that several of our allies, and aspirants to that status, are tremendously alarmed at Russia’s war on Georgia. They understand what it signifies, because they remember all too well suffering aggression from the same source. As that memory drove them to seek refuge in alliance with us within NATO, it befits us to justify their confidence as an ally should. We noted yesterday the extraordinary joint communique from the Presidents of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that condemned Russia’s “imperialist and revisionist policy in the East of Europe.” Poignantly, the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, is now allowing the Georgian government — whose online portals are blocked by Russian action — to use his own official website to disseminate news and photographs on the war. Most remarkably, Ukraine, which hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, is threatening to bar Russian access to the port. Ukraine was one of the two states denied a NATO Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit last April, specifically because of fears of Russia’s reaction. The other was Georgia.
America’s stake in the Caucasus war just went up. It may be too late to save Georgia — though we ought, within limits, to help Georgia save itself — but it is not too late to contain the damage to America and its allies that Georgia’s tragedy inflicts. As the Russian tanks roll toward Tbilisi, we should think hard about how far we’re willing to go to do it.