An editorial in the Wall Street Journal:
Vladimir Putin's last significant act as Russian president was to bring the Caucasus to the edge of another war. His first act as prime minister, a job he assumed this week after installing his protege in the presidency, may be to push it over that edge.
Russia has recently put into higher gear its longstanding efforts to topple the pro-Western government in Georgia. The strategy is to make trouble in the two breakaway regions of Georgia. Mr. Putin issued a decree last month that established official relations with authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which everyone – including, on paper, Russia – considers "sovereign" Georgian territory. In reality, Moscow rules both places, and the decree takes them a big step toward incorporation into Russia.
Less than two weeks later, Russia sent additional forces and heavy weapons into Abkhazia to "supplement" (in its words) the nearly 3,000-strong "peacekeeping" (ditto) contingent. The Russians have been stationed in the coastal region since the early 1990s, when a civil war, with Kremlin help, sundered Georgia. A Russian plane last month shot down an unmanned Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia – which Russia recognizes as Georgian air space – while Abkhaz forces have moved toward the Kodori Valley, now under Georgian control. The Russian Defense Ministry is threatening to send more troops to Abkhazia, saying the Georgians were the ones dangerously redeploying forces into the area, a claim that has been dismissed by the U.N., among others.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, has to weigh his military options. But he must also be careful to avoid stepping into a Russian trap. The Kremlin would like nothing better than to goad Mr. Saakashvili, not a cool head in the best of times, into an armed conflict.
Renewed fighting in Abkhazia is a win-win for Russia. Georgia would be outgunned in any direct confrontation with Russian forces. It can't count on support from Europe. And any hot conflict would impair Georgia's chances of joining NATO. The calculus changes if the Abkhaz strike first in the Kodori Valley. That would have Russian fingerprints all over it. The U.S. and Europe would be forced to reconsider their relationship with Russia's young President Dmitry Medvedev, who's supposed to be kinder and gentler than Prime Minister Putin.
Presumably the Russians are aware of this risk if they provoke war in Georgia. The White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said this week that Russia should "back off." The West can go further. Short of offering explicit security guarantees, NATO could make clear it won't stand idly in case of a Russian attack on Georgia, whether on its own or through its Abkhaz proxies. America can expand its military advisory role in Georgia.
The independence of Kosovo, half a continent away, has been cited by Russia and some useful idiots in the West as a legitimate pretext to wrest Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. As if Russia's real goal there for the past five years wasn't to bring about regime change in Georgia. And as if Mr. Putin hasn't made clear his desire to re-establish a Russian "sphere of influence" in the energy-rich Caucasus and throughout its near abroad.
The spark for the latest Russian aggression wasn't Kosovo, but Bucharest. Last month, at the NATO summit in the Romanian capital, Germany blocked plans to offer Ukraine and Georgia "membership action plans." Rather than put these democratic countries on the long road to NATO, Berlin preferred to bend to Moscow. Georgia and Ukraine got a vague promise to join NATO one day and to review their "action plan" applications in December. In other words, their fate is up for grabs.
The Kremlin can smell Western wobbliness better than most. Within days of Bucharest it pounced on Georgia. If Russia gets its way there, the message to larger Ukraine will be similar: You're part of our world, too, whether you like it or not. Only with Ukraine in the Russian camp, to paraphrase Zbigniew Brzezinski, can Russia become an empire again.
By the same token, only without an empire can Russia ever become a democracy and a good global citizen, and the region free and peaceful. On the line in Georgia today is nothing less than 17 years of American-led efforts to bring about such an outcome in Eurasia.