War between Georgia and Russia is a fact. Russian air fighters are reported to be bombarding Georgian territory, including civilian facilities, while the death toll has already exceeded 1,600 casualties. But the fights over the small breakaway republic of South Ossetia are just an excuse for Moscow to exercise its imperial policy.
There is no doubt that Georgia started the conflict. On Friday, Tbilisi ordered thousands of soldiers into South Ossetia, still officially only a Georgian province, in order to dispose of the illegal government and reinstall the rightful authorities. As most people inhabiting South Ossetia have Russian citizenship, Moscow felt obliged to send tanks and armored vehicles to its southern neighbor. At the same time, Russian air fighters began to drop bombs on Georgian territory – a move that broke every diplomatic convention that Russia signed.
The Georgian-Russian conflict is deeply rooted in the past. In 1921, the Red Army invaded Georgia, which had gained independence only three years earlier. In two weeks the Soviets were in Tbilisi where they installed their puppet government and, in 1924, the country “voluntarily” joined the Soviet Union. South Ossetia was turned into an autonomous district in 1922 – in part to award the pro-Russian population, in part to antagonize it with the rest of Georgia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia again joined Georgia but with wide independence, guaranteed by Moscow.
Georgia was a provincial country for the West until very recently. Strategically located in the heart of the oil-rich Caucasus, Georgia has no natural resources itself, but remains the only country capable of transporting oil to Europe bypassing Russia. As Moscow uses its almost monopolistic position in the region to exercise its imperial policy, keeping Georgia out of Russia`s sphere of influence has become a vocal point of foreign policy for many countries.
Fortunately for the United States, Georgia has a pro-American government. President Mikhail Saakashvili received his thorough education at Columbia Law School and the George Washington University Law School, speaks faultless English, and dreams of nothing more but to see his country in NATO and the European Union. In April of this year it seemed like his hopes would soon come true as NATO leaders – after strong lobbying by the United States – gave the green light to Georgia`s membership.
Now America and its European partners have a chance to show that their declarations were not just empty words. Giving diplomatic support to Georgia will prove that Saakashvili was right in eschewing good relations with Russia in favor of moving his country towards western democracies. The picture is clear: Tbilisi only sent forces to one of its provinces whereas Moscow deliberately attacked an independent state. If the Kremlin sees that the West does nothing to protect Georgia`s integrity, it will take it as permission to continue its imperial policy elsewhere, including Europe.
The Russian bear has woken up and is hungry. After years of political and economic decline, Russia feels strong again due to its vast natural resources. If Georgia falls, we may soon see a similar confrontation in Ukraine and the Baltic republics where a significant number of Russian citizens live. In the last months of his presidency, George W. Bush faces the most serious problem since 9/11 as Georgia becomes a litmus test for America`s resolve to protect the free world.