Russia escalates war into western Georgia

Russia occupied an abandoned Georgian military installation in the west, on undisputed Georgian territory, as it escalated its offensive in the Caucasus.  The move attempted to block Georgia from responding militarily in Abkhazia as well as preventing a further mobilization by Georgia of its armed forces:

Russian forces carried out military operations Monday around the west Georgian town of Senaki to prevent Georgian troops from regrouping there, news agencies reported, quoting the Russian defence ministry.

The reports were confirmed by a Georgian official.

Russian forces “are conducting an operation to prevent firing on South Ossetia and on Russian peacekeepers by Georgian artillery and the regrouping of Georgian forces aimed at new aggression towards South Ossetia,” RIA Novosti quoted a Russian defence ministry official as saying, in a report also carried by Interfax.

Earlier, the Russians disclaimed any intent to invade Georgia.  This move not only belies their words but also their motives.  It comes close to the Black Sea area, strategic for both nations, and threatens to cut Tbilisi off from its navy.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili implored the US and Europe to act in its defense:

Ostensibly, this war is about an unresolved separatist conflict. Yet in reality, it is a war about the independence and the future of Georgia. And above all, it is a war over the kind of Europe our children will live in. Let us be frank: This conflict is about the future of freedom in Europe.

No country of the former Soviet Union has made more progress toward consolidating democracy, eradicating corruption and building an independent foreign policy than Georgia. This is precisely what Russia seeks to crush.

This conflict is therefore about our common trans-Atlantic values of liberty and democracy. It is about the right of small nations to live freely and determine their own future. It is about the great power struggles for influence of the 20th century, versus the path of integration and unity defined by the European Union of the 21st. Georgia has made its choice.

Unfortunately, the Russians can make similar claims with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Unfortunately, the US and EU set this precedent several times over in the Balkans by endorsing and assisting the breakup of Yugoslavia.  In those situations, we recognized the independence of ethnic enclaves to secede from their internationally-recognized countries without the general consent of their neighbors.  This is especially true in Kosovo, which had been part of Serbia for centuries.

The Russian military attack on Georgia does have parallels to NATO attacks on Serbia in the 1990s, if one accepts the notion that Tbilisi oppressed its ethnic enclaves.  Moscow can make those charges and claim just as much moral responsibility to protect Abkhazians and Ossetians from Tbilisi as we did for the breakaway republics in the Balkans, and if necessary they can fake a few atrocities to give it some PR value.  We unleashed this diplomatic game, and Georgia gets to pay the price.

That doesn’t mean we can just throw up our hands and leave the Georgians to the tender mercies of Vladimir Putin.  Even forgetting the strategic value of Georgia, the nation supported us in Iraq when most nations couldn’t be bothered, and we owe them our support now.  The flights delivering their troops back to Georgia send a message to Moscow that we will not stand idly by while it rebuilds its empire in the Caucasus.  We need to find other ways to sting Putin, especially economically, for his adventure.

But we shouldn’t pretend to be shocked at Russia’s convenient support of nationalism in the Caucasus after our own convenient support of it in the Balkans.