Let’s be clear about it: what the Russians have been doing in Georgia is perhaps the greatest threat to Freedom since the end of the cold war. Indeed it could mark the resumption of the Cold War. A large, powerful and undemocratic country has invaded a small and democratic neighbour, without even the flimsy excuse of a UN Resolution.
Ironically, it is forty years almost to the day since the Soviet tanks rolled into (then) Czechoslovakia to quell the “Prague Spring”, in another great assault on Freedom and Democracy. We had thought that that sort of behaviour was consigned to history. It is not. And their excuse, of protecting Russian nationals in Georgia, has sinister echoes of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Chamberlain described Czechoslovakia as “a far-away country of which we know little”, which would also be a fair description of Georgia today. But we found in 1939 that the invasion of a little-known and distant country can have far-reaching consequences.
Where does Russia stop? It could use exactly the same excuse in a host of countries with Russian minorities. In the Baltics (there has been trouble in Tallinn, Estonia over the re-location of a Russian war memorial), in Poland, in Ukraine. Especially Ukraine. And their lies and duplicity are breathtaking. They sign a cease-fire that requires them to withdraw. But they don’t withdraw. They say they will leave, but they keep digging in. And in any case, Sarkozy’s peace treaty effectively allows Russia to stay in South Ossetia and Abkhazia indefinitely, with “Peace-Keepers”.
So what’s to be done? All my instincts are that we should do everything we can to come to the aid of Georgia (which, with some justification, feels badly let down by the West). But let’s be realistic. We can’t actually issue a military ultimatum to Russia. First, because the electors in Britain — and in Europe and in the USA — don’t have the stomach for another war. Second, because with the US and the British military stretched tight as a drum in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can’t credibly back up any threat (a point that will not have escaped the Kremlin). And third, because in strategic and logistical terms, the West would start out at a huge disadvantage to Russia in any conflict in Georgia. Geography forbids.
What we should certainly do at least is to withdraw cooperation from Russia in international forums. They should be excluded from the G8 and the WTO. We should ask the IOC to reconsider the 2014 Winter Olympics currently scheduled for Sochi in Russia, and if the IOC will not do so, the West should boycott the games. We should set down some very clear red lines with regard to other countries, both within the EU (Baltics, Poland) and outside (Ukraine).
And one other thing. I have been banging on for some time about energy security, and the need to reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels. This is a wake-up call. We should redouble our efforts, especially on coal and nuclear generation.
The politics of Russia’s invasion
Georgia was (and remains) keen to join NATO. Arguably it was the reluctance of some EU countries to press ahead with Georgia’s NATO membership that emboldened the Russians to invade. Fearing to offend the Russian bear, we simply made him aware of our weakness and his strength. And the response of the West to the invasion was strangely muted. Uncharacteristically, US President George Bush initially gave a half-hearted response, taking several days to say the right things. Barack Obama, sunning himself in Hawaii, was even more dilatory. Only John McCain, to his credit, grasped the magnitude of the problem and responded commensurately. McCain’s strong suit is foreign affairs, and this crisis will help his campaign.
Nicolas Sarkozy as President-in-Office of the EU rushed in and sought to broker a cease-fire. But as John Bolton pointed out in a Telegraph article, the EU all too often sees itself merely as a mediator, and not as an advocate for a small democratic country unjustly invaded by a big neighbour. And his deal was deeply flawed. It was not clear whether the promised Russian withdrawal included withdrawal from South Ossetia and Abkhazia (indeed it was clear to the Russians that it did not). They seem to be claiming a right to remain in an indefinite “Security Zone” beyond those two regions within Georgia, and to keep Russian “Peacekeepers” (read “armed forces”) in Georgia as long as they like. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the cease-fire is that Russia doesn’t seem to be observing the terms of the withdrawal, and there is no mechanism to make them do so.
Worst of all has been the supine response of our incredible disappearing Prime Minister, and his arch-enemy the Foreign Secretary. Battened down in his polyester jacket somewhere on the Suffolk coast, Brown has had little or nothing to say. Unlike McCain, foreign policy is not Brown’s strong suit, but surely he might have said something? We seem to have a government which has lost interest in governing.
Contrast that with the sure-footed response of David Cameron, who went to Tbilisi and met with the Georgian President and Prime Minister, and assured them of our support. Exactly the right response. We seem to have the Leader of the Opposition more and more fulfilling the role of Prime Minster, and speaking for Britain, while our real Prime Minister fades into the middle distance. Well done Dave.
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