Russo-Georgian conflict is not all Russia's fault
But war could ignite further disputes in the region.
Following a series of provocative attacks in its secessionist region of South Ossetia late last week, Georgia launched an all-out attempt to reestablish control in the tiny enclave. Russia then intervened by dropping bombs on Georgia to protect the South Ossetians, halt the growing tide of refugees flooding into southern Russia, and aid its own peacekeepers there.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, the story goes, Russia has at last found a way of undermining Georgia's Western aspirations, nipping the country's budding democracy, and countering American influence across Eurasia. But this view of events is simplistic.
American and European diplomats, who have rushed to the region to try to stop the conflict, would do well to consider the broader effects of this latest round of Caucasus bloodletting – and to seek perspectives on the conflict beyond the story of embattled democracy and cynical comparisons with the Prague Spring of 1968.
Russia illegally attacked Georgia and imperiled a small and feeble neighbor. But by dispatching his own ill-prepared military to resolve a secessionist dispute by force, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has managed to lead his country down the path of a disastrous and ultimately self-defeating war.
Speaking on CNN, Mr. Saakashvili compared Russia's intervention in Georgia to the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. Russia has massively overreacted to the situation in Georgia. It has hit targets across Georgia, well beyond South Ossetia, and has killed both Georgian military personnel as well as civilians. The international community is right to condemn this illegal attack on an independent country and United Nations member.
But this is not a repeat of the Soviet Union's aggressive behavior of the last century. So far at least, Russia's aims have been clear: to oust Georgian forces from the territory of South Ossetia, one of two secessionist enclaves in Georgia, and to chasten a Saakashvili government that Russia perceives as hot-headed and unpredictable.
Regardless of the conflict's origins, the West must continue to act diplomatically to push Georgia and Russia back to the pre-attacks status quo. The United States should make it clear that Saakashvili has seriously miscalculated the meaning of his partnership with Washington, and that Georgia and Russia must step back before they do irreparable damage to their relations with the US, NATO, and the European Union.
The attack on South Ossetia, along with Russia's inexcusable reaction, have pushed both sides down the road toward all-out war – a war that could ignite a host of other territorial and ethnic disputes in the Caucasus as a whole.
The emerging narrative, echoing across editorial pages and on television news programs in the US, portrays Georgia as an embattled, pro-Western country struggling to secure its borders against a belligerent Russia. Since coming to power in a bloodless revolution in late 2003, Saakashvili has certainly steered a clear course toward the West.