Last Friday, Moscow warned Georgia that it would use force to protect its “compatriots” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that have essentially broken away from Tbilisi. “If a military conflict develops, then we will have to react, including with military means,” said Valery Kenyaikin, a Russian foreign ministry official. “We are ready to defend our citizens.”
Russian citizens in Georgia? Vladimir Putin has recently taken steps that essentially annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russia, including issuing Russian passports to their residents. Worse, Moscow’s planes are patrolling the airspace over them. Tensions remain high after Georgia announced that a Russian MiG shot down one of its drones over Abkhazia on the 20th of this month. Moscow denied the charge, saying that separatists were responsible. A video of the incident backs up the Georgian assertion.
And what is the Atlantic Alliance doing while this drama unfolds? Western diplomats say they hope relations between Tbilisi and Moscow will improve, but tensions have tended to increase over time. The situation is bound to deteriorate even further because NATO, at German and French insistence, declined this month to put Georgia and Ukraine on the path to full membership. Putin evidently took this failure as a green light for the shootdown.
No one in Washington seems to be too concerned, however. Any resemblance to Germany’s 1938 absorption of Austria is either ignored or seen as purely coincidental. The West looks weak to Moscow, and Putin’s next moves are bound to be even more aggressive.
In the meantime, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has promised to reassert control over both areas. The residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have a right to self-determination, yet at this moment the issue is not their wishes but Moscow’s interference in the affairs of a sovereign neighbor. Yes, it will be inconvenient to defend Georgia if that is what is required. But the biggest lesson of the last century is obviously applicable to this obscure conflict.