Message from Moscow

The conflict between Russia and Georgia that started as a regional spat over a pair of breakaway republics is looking increasingly like an all-out invasion, and perhaps even the start of a Russian drive to begin rebuilding the old, dismantled Soviet empire. Some are calling on the United States and NATO for a strong, perhaps military, response. What these hawks seem to have forgotten is that their beaks and talons are as sharp as marbles.

With the U.S. thoroughly bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and NATO anchored by complacent Western European countries that believe the threat from Russia ended with the Cold War, a military response is out of the question. At the United Nations, meanwhile, the Security Council has held five emergency sessions on the Georgia-Russia conflict in as many days, even though with Russia as a veto-wielding member, there is no chance of strong U.N. reprisals.

No one should have been taken by surprise by the latest turn of events in South Ossetia, where tensions have been steadily escalating in recent months. Justifiably or not, Russia's leaders feel deeply threatened by the newly independent, pro-Western regimes, such as Georgia and Ukraine, on its borders. NATO's signals that it might eventually welcome these countries as members has only worsened Moscow's paranoia, but the real catalyst of the current violence may have been Kosovo's declaration of independence, with U.S. and European backing, in February. The Kremlin has long insisted on parallels between Kosovo, a breakaway republic of Serbia, and the two provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway republics of Georgia. Kosovo's move left Moscow waiting for an excuse to enforce that notion with tanks, and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have provided it on Thursday when he sent troops to South Ossetia.

Western diplomats have rightly heaped scorn on Russia for escalating the conflict far beyond the borders of South Ossetia, but they have no one but themselves to blame for their inability to do anything else. The U.S., believing Russia to still be the weak, demoralized country it was in the 1990s, has largely ignored Moscow's warnings against building a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe or expanding NATO. Western Europe has been neglecting its defense spending for years, believing itself to be secure under a 21st century Pax Americana. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has used billions in oil and gas revenues to rebuild Russia's military, even as its rule under former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin has become increasingly autocratic.

It will be a tragedy if Georgia, a fast-growing, pro-Western democracy that was flowering under Saakashvili, falls once again under the Russian boot. Yet matters could get even worse if the West's diplomats &

and generals &

don't take the conflict as a sign that they must take the rising threat from Moscow more seriously.


Los Angeles Times

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