Commentary Magazine

What to Do about Georgia

President Bush’s reaction to the invasion of a pro-Western, democratic nation isn’t going to cut it. This is what he had to say today:

I said this violence is unacceptable — I not only said it to Vladimir Putin, I’ve said it to the President of the country, Dmitriy Medvedev. And my administration has been engaged with both sides in this, trying to get a cease-fire, and saying that the status quo ante for all troops should be August 6th. And, look, I expressed my grave concern about the disproportionate response of Russia and that we strongly condemn bombing outside of South Ossetia.

Disproportionate? Was there some level of aggression that would have been more "proportionate" and hence more acceptable? Strongly condemn bombing outside South Ossetia? Is, then, bombing in South Ossetia OK?

That’s the kind of language the President and his spokesmen use when referring to the latest outrages committed by Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta. Language like that doesn’t mean much to hardened thugs like them–or like Vladimir Putin. What they understand is action. The question now is whether the U.S. and other Western nations will be willing to take serious action against this outrageous Russian aggression.

What would such action consist of? A demand to Russia that it withdraw its troops from the sovereign soil of another country and end its attacks within, say, 48 hours. If it doesn’t comply, diplomatic and economic sanctions could follow. The Russian elites are particularly vulnerable to having their Western bank accounts–where they stash ill-gotten financial gains–frozen.

It is also important to give Georgia the wherewithal to defend itself. It has a small but capable military which has received lots of American training and equipment in recent years (and has paid us back by sending a sizable contingent to Iraq). But it may not have two key weapons that would enable it to wreak havoc on the Russian advance. I am thinking of the Stinger and the Javelin. Both are relatively small, inexpensive, handheld missiles. The former is designed for attacking aircraft, the latter for attacking armored vehicles. The Stinger, as we know, has already been used with devastating effectiveness against the Russian air force once before–in Afghanistan. The Javelin is newer, and the Russians haven’t yet seen its abilities demonstrated. But there is little doubt that it could do a great deal to bog down the Russians as their vehicles advance down narrow mountain roads into Georgia.

If Russia doesn’t call off its offensive right away, the Pentagon should rush deliveries of Javelins and Stingers to Georgia. If the Russians insist on committing acts of aggression, at least let their victims defend themselves properly–and make the Russians pay the kind of price they paid once before in Afghanistan. As we’ve learned recently, with Iran supporting anti-American attacks in Iraq, proxy warfare is a fiendishly powerful way of fighting. If it is used against us, it should also be used by us.

Some will no doubt object that such actions would be “provocative” and that we should do nothing to jeopardize our “vital” relationship with Russia. Obviously we should tread carefully in our dealings with a country as powerful as Russia still is. But it is not clear what benefits we derive from our current relationship.

On Iran, for instance, Russia has been more hindrance than help. It has helped Iran to develop its nuclear program and it has been selling Iran high-tech surface-to-air missiles. Russia has gone along grudgingly with weak sanctions at the UN but, along with China, it has blocked more robust action. If Russia delivers important aid in the war on terrorism or other areas, I’m not aware of it. Increasingly the Russians have adopted a confrontational tone with the West, and they have backed it up with bullying of our allies. The Bush administration and other Western governments have tried their best to get along with Russia. That has been interpreted by Putin not as a sign of goodwill but as a sign of weakness. It is time to send a different message by making clear that Russia has crossed a red line in Georgia.

I would also like to respond to a legitimate point raised by some of those posting comments on the blog post this piece began life as, who ask me to consider possible Russian countermeasures if the U.S. provides Georgia with Stingers and Javelins. Will Russia send high-tech munitions to insurgents fighting American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq? Will Russia disrupt fuel supplies to the West–in particular the natural gas supplies on which Germany and so many other European nations rely?

Start with the first idea: Russia arming Islamic insurgents. Given the problems that Russia has had (and continues to have) with Islamic extremists within in its own borders, if I were running the Kremlin I would be extremely careful about handing out missiles that could be used to bring down Russian aircraft. Al Qaeda, the Mahdist Army, and the Taliban are not exactly Russian allies at the moment, and it is doubtful that they could ever be reliable proxies. The bigger threat in this regard is that Iran will provide higher-tech weapons to these groups, as it has with Hezbollah, but so far it has hesitated to do so for reasons that remain known only to the mullahs.

The reality, as we’ve seen with proxy wars in the past, is that it is extremely hard for the country on the receiving end to retaliate effectively. Think of Chinese and Russian support for North Vietnam, U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen, or Iranian support for terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise I believe Russia would be hard-put to respond to American assistance to Georgia–of which we have already tendered plenty in the past.

Might Russia use economic pressure even if it has no obvious military answer? Perhaps. It has certainly flexed its muscles in the past by disrupting energy supplies to Ukraine and other customers. The problem with that strategy is that it costs Russia a lot of money and runs the risks that its customers will find alternative suppliers in the future. Russia might well try this tack, but I doubt it would be a long-run success.

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