By Ketevan Ninua
While Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia came as a surprise to most around the world, it should have evoked quite the opposite reaction. Molestation of her neighbors, including setting impoverished Ossetians against Georgians, has long been Russian policy. Today imperial Russia, flouting international law, threatens Georgia’s very existence by bombing the country, slaughtering civilians, and occupying territory. This is a situation that the West has encountered numerous times in the past: Czechoslovakia, 1938; Berlin, 1948; Budapest, 1956; Prague, 1968; Afghanistan, 1979. The world condemns Russia, but condemnations do not curb Moscow’s behavior.
Russian aggression stretches back centuries; its approach to conquest dates from the Middle Ages, when soldiers were sent to war with no promise of payment other than loot. Russian aggression on a macro level is well-documented, but the savagery of its soldiers has not been widely reported. Russian soldiers in Georgia have engaged in widespread looting of food, electronic equipment, furniture, footwear, and clothes—even used toilet bowls and sinks.
Russian soldiers have raped and murdered innocent civilians. In Georgia, three generations often live in the same home; Russian soldiers have beaten elders and shot family members who dared to object. After their looting and killing was over, Russian troops have burned Georgian villages to the ground, destroyed towns, and mined roads—to ensure that no food or humanitarian aid can reach devastated Georgian citizens.
Notwithstanding the Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russians have set up 34 checkpoints inside Georgia. To further disrupt the Georgian economy, the Russians have dug trenches around Poti (Georgia’s largest port) to prevent the movement of desperately needed seaborne cargoes into Georgia.
Since August 8, Russians have been torching Georgian forests, croplands, and nature preserves. Fires are still burning, notably in Borjomi National Park, southwest of Tbilisi (the source of the eponymous mineral water sold internationally). Georgian helicopters, threatened by Russian missiles, have been unable as of yet to put down the blazes.
Russia stands apart from other powers in its total lack of respect for the international law that governs twenty-first century interactions. The United Kingdom’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, incisively addressed Russia’s lawlessness. “My message to Russia is simple. If you want to be welcome at the top table of organizations such as the G8, OECD, and WTO, you must accept that with rights come responsibilities…. We want Russia to be a good partner in the G8 and other organizations, but it cannot pick and choose which rules to adhere to.”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s folie de grandeur cannot be sustained by the brutality of Russia’s ignorant and impoverished people. Putin’s government gives soldiers the opportunity to loot abroad in lieu of basic financial support denied them at home; Russia cynically plays a blind nationalistic card to keep its people together, with propaganda and war diverting Russians’ attention from domestic problems.
Putin and his cronies control most of Russia’s wealth; they want to be seen as big boys in the international arena. But they don’t abide by the rules; they behave like thugs—and, so far, Europe is allowing it.
Russia has sent a strong message to its former republics and Eastern European countries: an alliance with the West means little, since the West is too weak to protect you.
Georgia’s independence as a democratic state is unacceptable to Russia. With its Rose Revolution, Georgia showed the world that it was possible for a nation to peacefully free itself from the Russian yoke. Sandwiched between Russia and Iran for centuries, Georgia has had to fight to ensure its very existence. Indeed, Georgians greet each other with a friendly “Gamarjoba”—“Victory.” Georgia tried to be a peaceful neighbor to Russia, but Moscow doesn’t want peaceful neighbors: only vassal states.
Russia desperately and dishonestly claims that Georgia started the August war. Had Georgians started it, would they not have first brought back their war-seasoned troops from Iraq?
Rather, the Russian offensive against the freedom of newly democratic Georgia was premeditated. For months, Russia tried to provoke Georgia into a war, harassing Georgian citizens inside and outside the country, firing missiles into Georgian territory, even shooting down an unmanned drone. Distribution of Russian passports to Ossetian citizens was but a pretext to barge into Georgia with 80,000 armored troops, and hundreds of tanks, planes, and ships to “protect” these unthreatened pseudo-Russians. The Georgian government clearly had no choice but to protect its land and citizens when Russia invaded.
The Russian invasion would have been scarcely conceivable had the European leaders given the green light to Georgia’s accession to NATO. But by succumbing to Russian pressure and refusing Tbilisi NATO membership in spring 2008, Europe gave carte blanche to Moscow to do whatever it wanted. World leaders are not exempt from blame for Russia’s ruthless and unwarranted attack on a peaceful, democratic state.
Russia suspended the Cold War only for a brief period in which it could not sustain its hostile posture. Given this, NATO must soon implement the desperately needed Membership Action Plan for Georgia’s entry. Indeed, the West must not seem to condone this aggression and a variety of punishments must be enacted to curb Russian power, including: reducing European reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies; ending Russian membership in the G8; enacting economic sanctions on Russia; continuing to block Russian membership in the WTO; freezing Russian assets abroad, especially those of Putin and his colleagues; stripping Russia of the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics; and curbing visas for Russian citizens.
Russia is clearly moving to expand its borders and dominate its ex-satellite states from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic. If the West doesn’t reverse Russia’s thrust into Georgia and stop the Russians on its eastern doorstep, they will soon be in Europe.
The West and the world face a decisive moment. Russia is testing its capacity for aggression, and Georgia is the proving ground. Poland and the Baltic states have already declared for Georgia. The United Kingdom, Germany, France and other nations must also face reality. There is no middle way; no escape into neutrality.
Ketevan Ninua is a co-founder of Georgian Center of Technology, a technology and engineering institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a board member of ProGeorgia.org, Inc. Born in Tbilisi, she is a New York representative of the Georgian Association in the United States.