Russia's invasion of Georgia last month seriously undermined peace and security in Europe for the first time in years. Russia's military actions and subsequent decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states also represent a fundamental challenge to the norms and rules that help to promote order in the international system.
The initial skirmishes between Ossetian and Georgian forces that first sparked this
conflict in early August 2008 should have been contained. Had the international
community – led by an attentive and proactive American government – engaged both the
Russian and Georgian governments in an effort to first stop the violence immediately,
and then more ambitiously, to mediate a permanent solution to Georgia’s border disputes,
this war might have been avoided. It still remains unclear what sequence of events turned
skirmishes into war -- an international investigation should be conducted to shed light on
this question. Irrespective of who moved first to escalate, the Georgian government’s
decision to use military force to reassert its sovereignty over South Ossetia, which
included sending its forces into the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, was short-sighted
and ill-considered. Nonetheless, Georgian military action within its borders can in no
way be equated with or cited as an excuse for Russia’s invasion and then dismemberment
of a sovereign country. Russia’s actions were disproportionate and illegal. The tragic loss of life – soldiers and civilians alike – on all sides was regrettable, unnecessary and avoidable.
Because Georgia is a democracy, Georgian voters will someday judge the decisions of
their government last month. But let’s not confuse that discussion with a clear-headed
understanding of Russian motivations. Russia’s military actions last month and
continued illegal occupation of Georgian territory today were not a mere defensive
reaction to Georgian military actions in South Ossetia. On the contrary, the Kremlin’s
moves represent the latest and boldest moves in a long-term strategy to undermine
Georgian sovereignty, cripple the Georgian economy, and ultimately overthrow the
democratically-elected government of Georgia. Moreover, Russia’s government actions
in Georgia constitute just one front of a comprehensive campaign to reassert Russian
dominance in the region through both coercive and cooperative instruments.