DESPITE rallying his troops with a brandished pistol like some Georgian General Patton, President Eduard Shevardnadze this week was forced to abandon Sukhumi and has lost most of Abkhazia to rebel forces. Mr. Shevardnaze, the former Soviet foreign minister, says the Russian Army planned and backed the rebel takeover of Abkhazia and its vital Black Sea ports. The charge must be taken seriously, given the level of weaponry and tactics used by the rebels.
There is something sobering about one of the world's most powerful men in the 1980s today ducking bullets and traversing back alleys in an escape. Yet it is becoming the way of the world in the former Soviet Union. Unstable and poor republics are collapsing back into Russia, or rejoining Moscow, as Azerbaijan did last week. The question is, how much of the instability in Georgia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova is being induced? Russian troops are active in these states and are present in several more.
Increasingly one hears in Moscow of the ``inevitability'' or naturalness of regaining parts of its imperial empire. Given the level of chaos and lack of resources in these states, the West is saying nothing. Who cares for Georgia? It is small and unstrategic. Better to back Boris Yeltsin in his historic fight with parliament and not make an issue of Russia's dirty little wars.
The State Department is going further. It is arguing that Russian forces in areas of conflict are a stabilizing presence. US Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering, in a Sept. 25 interview, said of Russian troops: ``They've been working in Georgia all week to try to bring about calm in that situation.'' Shevardnazde is likely to have read the statement with a hefty mixture of astonishment and despair.
Such signals lead to the kind of conclusions found in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a centrist magazine in Moscow, two weeks ago: ``Not only is the West not concerned, on the contrary it is very much interested that Russia conduct an imperial policy inside the country in order to preserve our unity and territorial integrity - and also outside with its nearest neighbors and with states within the zones of the former Soviet Union.''
Georgia is another small country about which the West knows little. But Georgia alone is not the issue. If Russia begins to reaquire territory, how far does it go? How deep is the pattern? How does Russia act if Yeltsin is deposed? One notes that talk in Moscow of a reaquired Ukraine is not entirely fictional.
The US and Europe must do all possible to help Yeltsin. He is the only figure with any popular authority, and he is committed to liberal reforms. But this does not mean the West should remain silent about or ignore the imperial patterns emerging in Russia.