Weekly Standard Online

On the Brink

From the August 22, 2008 Daily Standard

Former Senior Fellow

The first cross-border invasion by the Russian armed forces since 1979 has been underway for 14 days. The world has distantly observed Russian forces simply ignore the withdrawal agreement their president signed, roaming here and there deep within Georgia, far from the war zone, occupying "bases" like Khashuri where the Georgian army is allowed to be stationed under the unequal truce agreement. After the nominal ceasefire, the Russian invaders have blown up Georgia's main east-west transportation artery, "incidentally" crippling the economy, occupied Georgia's main port, arrested Georgian soldiers far from the combat zone, and towed away military vehicles that belong to the U.S. Army. All the while they have threatened Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, off and on at their whim. We are watching a happy cat playing with a disemboweled mouse.

Russian troop movements are taking place as I write that may be heralded as Russia's long-delayed withdrawal. But Russians have now produced a map of the "checkpoints" they will claim under their right, granted in the truce agreement, to "implement additional security measures." The checkpoints include strategic positions on the main east-west transportation artery of Georgia, at Poti (Georgia's main port), and Senaki, the only Georgian airbase in western Georgia-and a transportation hub controlling most road and rail movement in western Georgia.

To understand the significance of this, one has to visualize the geography of Georgia. Its populated area consists overwhelmingly of two fertile valleys running from west to east that nearly touch. Imagine the Shenadoah Valley in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania or the central valley of California, but disposed horizontally. North and south of these valleys two rows of high mountains soar, the northern one being higher than any range in the United States or Europe. This topography, with little population or transportation above 1,500 feet of elevation, funnels the population, economic activity, and vital roads and railroads into a narrow corridor, easily cut. The new Russian checkpoints around Gori will cut that corridor close to the middle. Senaki is a central transportation hub in the western valley. So the proposed Russian positions essentially cut Georgia into three pieces. Georgia will be indefensible, at the mercy of an occupying army.

These "additional security measures" claimed by Russia ideally situate the Russian army to strangle Georgia's economy at will or to provoke domestic disturbances. These military positions call into question the continued viability of Georgia as an independent state. Lest you be uneasy, however, NATO is on the case. Its ponderous machinery vibrated and whirred, and brought forth . . . a "NATO-Georgia Commission"! That will lay the icy hand of fear on the commanders of Russian tank columns! But wait, there is a lot more: "The Alliance is considering seriously the implications of Russia's actions for the NATO-Russia relationship." All vague, but a hint follows: "In 2002, we established the NATO-Russia Council, a framework for discussions with Russia." It begins to sound ominous for Russia. So, immediately, France and Germany added a clause to dissipate the alarm this may provoke: "including on issues that divide the Alliance and Russia." But all was not lost. Condi Rice achieved the triumphant addition: "We have determined that we cannot continue with business as usual," determined on what we will not do. Churchill defined this state of affairs: The parties are "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity."

Enough about NATO. The Ministerial was a failure. It is, however, only a detail. The United States lost much of its influence in the Caucasus in five days, with all that implies for the security of Caspian oil and for strategic access to Central Asia and Afghanistan. Russia understood the war as a proxy war, like the Korean War, and believes it routed us. From sudden success comes arrogance, which will make all cooperation on issues like Iran less likely, the price much higher. The biggest danger is to the sovereignty and independence of the post-Soviet republics. Georgia is a test probe, which can prepare for the "reintegration" of all the independent republics except the Baltics in a kind of Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Ukraine is the biggest item on the agenda, but the next step is to gather the fruits of the victory in Georgia. Foreign Minister Lavrov admitted aiming at the ouster of Georgia's president. Russia has long been intervening in politics within sovereign Georgia. The Russians have been giving lavish funding to the exiled KGB general and Communist Igor Giorgadze, enabling him to open splendid offices all over Tbilisi in spite of near-zero popularity in polls; they have other quislings too. While Georgians are rallying for the moment behind their president, most are understandably angry at Saakashvili and his macho entourage. Before long the Georgian government's popularity will enter a steep decline; the government will struggle to survive in its present form. This confused and fearful situation, laden with bitter blame, is the ideal one for Russia to wreck the stability of Georgia.

America, for its part, has sustained a defeat. But worse could follow. It is more vital than before to affect events inside and outside Georgia, but we have less leverage to do so. President Bush should act personally to get a grip on the situation, as he did in Iraq with the Surge. This means taking the issue away from some State Department bureaucrats, who are obsessed with the tactics of obtaining Russian cooperation on issues like nonproliferation-and with unrealistic hopes. As in the Middle East, American sympathy with endangered little countries is a given, and by it we have already forfeited the existing, and inadequate, level of Russian cooperation on such issues.

Our measures must begin unilaterally, because Russia has a veto in the Security Council and NATO is paralyzed. American and NATO officials have been saying, in many press leaks, that there is nothing we can do. Can this be right? The overshadowing fact is what Russians call the "correlation of forces." The United States is far more powerful than Russia, which has an economy in the range of South Korea's, and that superiority has multiplied vastly since we strove successfully against the Soviet Union,. Only the tunnel vision that comes from immersion in a crisis can conceal this dominant reality and blind our president to his real power.