This is an unjust war. That may seem obvious here in the U.S., but the Russians have worked hard to justify their attack, using the humanitarian language that everyone now uses to defend military operations in other people’s countries. It is important to address their claims, especially because they have received some credence in Europe. It is also relatively easy to do that since reporters and human rights activists have been allowed into parts of Georgia now under Russian control. As a result, we know that the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali has not been destroyed by the Georgian army. “Fighting appears to have been concentrated in two neighborhoods, while buildings in the rest of the city stood intact,” reports the New York Times (August 13, 2008). “Entire residential neighborhoods appear unscathed.” Nor is the Russian claim that the Georgians killed or injured 2,000 civilians credible. Human Rights Watch, checking the local hospital, has come up with the figure of 44 dead and 273 wounded in clashes between Ossetian separatists and Georgian soldiers—and one doctor told reporters that the majority of the wounded were soldiers (New York Times, August 15, 2008). The Putin government apparently believes that anything less than the Big Lie won’t be persuasive, and this Big Lie may be effective in Russia, where the government dominates the media. It shouldn’t be credited in the rest of the world. This isn’t a humanitarian intervention, and it isn’t a peacekeeping operation.
The movement of Georgian soldiers into South Ossetia was reckless, certainly, but it wasn’t the reason—it was only the excuse—for the Russian invasion. The reason lies in American policy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the years since 1989, which the Russians have interpreted, not implausibly, as aiming at and achieving a significant reduction in their power and prestige. I don’t think that the policy was necessarily wrong, or wrong at all, but it was, like President Saakashvili’s Ossetian adventure, reckless. We never reckoned on a Russian response or planned for it or consulted with our allies about what might have to be done. Russia’s strategic aggressiveness in Georgia obviously took the Bush administration by surprise. Just like the Iraqi insurgency. Just like the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Just like the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. Just like the fall of Musharraf in Pakistan.
It is clear that another victim of this administration’s obsession with Iraq has been the complete neglect of East-West relations as it pertains to Russia. The world cannot afford such a lapse in attention from the next administration in Washington.
The European response has been particularly weak, and we have to worry that the weakness is due to European dependence on Russian oil—which would be greatly heightened if the pipeline across Georgia and Turkey were cut. I don’t think that the Russians invaded Georgia for the oil; I don’t think that America invaded Iraq for the oil. But oil is a factor in imperial politics, and the EU needs to think about a version of Russian domination that is commercial rather than political or military—an “empire” entirely appropriate to the twenty-first century. One response that the Russians would notice would be a large-scale campaign for conservation and a massive investment in alternative sources of energy.
You can read his entire piece here. (Hat tip to Jeff Weintraub.)