The first battle of this new Cold War is Russia's invasion on Friday of the small pro-Western nation of Georgia. Russian troops entered Georgia ostensibly to protect Russian nationals in the separatist province of South Ossetia. But Russian warplanes have bombed targets across Georgia, and Russian tanks have already crossed through South Ossetia into central Georgia. There are reports that they may have taken the city of Gori, cutting off the Georgian capital of Tbilisi from the sea. At this rate, Russian tanks may be laying siege to Tbilisi by the time this article reaches its readers.
The Russians—and some Western advocates of appeasement—claim that the conflict can be blamed on Georgia's "provocation," but the real story here is about Russian provocation. For years, the government of Russia has supported ethnic Russian separatists in Georgia and has posted Russian "peacekeeping" troops inside South Ossetia—troops who are there to keep the peace only on Russia's terms. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili explains this slow-motion Russian invasion of Georgia in a powerfully written Wall Street Journal op-ed pleading for the West's support.
If you look at a map of Georgia, you see that South Ossetia is a dagger aimed into the heart of central Georgia, nearly cutting the country in half. Thus, Georgia's attempt to reassert its control of South Ossetia was not an act of "provocation." It was a desperate, last-ditch attempt to push back a creeping Russian takeover.
Georgia is too small to hope to defeat the Russian army in an all-out war. President Saakashvili apparently hoped that a military action against the separatists in South Ossetia would serve as a warning to the Russian government, which might be afraid of inviting the world's condemnation by escalating the conflict.
Instead, the Russians have shown no shame. Like Al Capone at the height of Prohibition, Russia's new gangster nomenklatura is flush with cash—from oil instead of alcohol—and drunk with a sense of regained geopolitical power. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still openly wielding the full power of the state, despite his supposed replacement by figurehead President Dimitri Medvedev, gave a brazen speech in which he accused us of having a "Cold War mentality" and declared: "The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing—the attempt to turn white into black, black into white and to adeptly portray victims of aggression as aggressors and place the responsibility for the consequences of the aggression on the victims." If ever there were a study in psychological projection—attributing your own vices to others—this is it.
In fact, all of the statements from Russian commanders or political leaders give no sense that they genuinely regard themselves as victims somehow forced into a conflict they wanted to avoid. The actual character of Russian statements about Georgia is a conspicuous gloating. They are invading Georgia because they can. They are the larger country with the bigger army, so who is going to stop them?
This is a crude return to Soviet-era foreign policy. The old Brezhnev Doctrine asserted that it was the Soviet Union's prerogative to send in the tanks to restore Communist rule in any of its Eastern European satellites. The new Putin Doctrine asserts that it is Russia's prerogative to send in the tanks to maintain de facto Kremlin control over the former Soviet republics.
But if this new doctrine seems familiar, it is not just because it reminds us of what the Soviets did to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Just as ominously, it is reminiscent of what the Nazis did to Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Putin is following the playbook of the Sudetenland crisis that Hitler engineered in 1938 as a pretext to invade Czechoslovakia. Hitler armed and supported ethnic Germans in a separatist province on the Czech border with Germany, then he used the alleged need to defend these ethnic Germans as a pretext to annex the Sudetenland. Having breached Czechoslovakia's borders and rendered the country indefensible, Hitler simply swallowed it whole.
In Georgia, Putin has armed and supported ethnic Russian separatists, going so far as to grant Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians living inside Georgia—which then conveniently allows Putin to send in the tanks on the pretext of defending Russian citizens. In effect, Putin annexed Georgia's citizens as a prelude to annexing Georgia. Having already swallowed two Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Putin is now demanding that Georgia disarm its police in provinces bordering these two enclaves, in order to give Russian separatists free reign there as well. It is a prelude to swallowing Georgia whole, reducing it once against to a Russian vassal state.
Brezhnev imposed his doctrine of rule by force in the name of defending the global march of socialism. While the Putin Doctrine is essentially the same in practice—send in the tanks—it is being imposed in the name of Nazi-style ethnic nationalism. What's Russian for "lebensraum"?
Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule at home has been called Stalin Lite. His policy toward the former Soviet republics can now be called Hitler Lite. This marks the completion of Russia's journey from one form of aggressive dictatorship to another, from Communism to Fascism.
What can the United States do? It may be too late for Georgia. Russia seems intent on using its military superiority to depose Saakashvili and install a compliant puppet government. In truth, Georgia may be too small and too far away for the US to offer it much in effective aid, beyond the moral support of ejecting Russia from the G-8 and other organizations of civilized nations. In this respect, the best response to the crisis has been the one proposed by John McCain.
While our options in Georgia may be limited, we should immediately prepare to counter the next big Russian threat. The invasion of Georgia is a warning about Russia's designs on Ukraine, a much larger and more strategically important country, closer to the heart of Europe, which also has a large ethnic Russian population that Putin would like to draw under his control.
In response to this crisis, we must immediate speed up Ukraine's absorption into NATO, including plans for placing NATO bases and other Western military assets there as a direct deterrent to a Russian takeover. The nations Russia regards as the "near abroad" it wants to dominate, we should regard as the West's buffer zone to protect us from Russian aggression.
Above all, this crisis is a warning that we have to stop treating Russia as a civilized nation, a "partner" that recognizes common interests. We have to realize that Russia is once again our enemy, though thankfully a smaller and less dangerous enemy than in the 20th century. We are in a new Cold War with Russia—call it Cold War Lite—and we need to recognize that fact.