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U.S. actions undermine the case against Russia

If you're looking for consistency in U.S. foreign policy, you won't find it in the current crisis involving Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

President Bush and others in his administration have repeatedly blasted Russia for invading a sovereign nation. Yet that is exactly what the United States did in 2003 when it sent 130,000 troops into Iraq.

And how is U.S. support for Kosovo's independence from Serbia any different from Russia's support for South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence from Georgia?

The answer: There isn't much difference at all. That's what's making it hard for the White House to build an airtight case that Russia is a ham-handed aggressor that's totally at fault in the Georgia fiasco.

"Suppose we tried for regime change in Cuba, and Russia tried to counter that — we would say it's an outrage to do something in our sphere of influence," says Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. "And yet we've tried to organize the former Soviet republics not so much as independent states, but to integrate them into a U.S.-led Western alliance. The Russians are understandably very uncomfortable."

With an elected president who went to law school in New York, Georgia is touted by the White House as a model of democracy in a region long under the thumb of Kremlin autocrats. The United States has pushed for NATO membership for Georgia, only to be rebuffed by European nations that don't want to further antagonize Russia when it's already angry about U.S. plans to base missiles near its borders.

Russia is also annoyed by U.S. support for the "territorial integrity" of Georgia, which includes two provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that have declared independence and lean more toward Moscow. The current crisis started Aug. 8 when Georgia tried to reclaim South Ossetia, killing hundreds of ethnic Russian civilians. That prompted the Kremlin to send in troops to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe," as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called it.

The Russian military action — which quickly spread beyond the two provinces, engulfing large Georgian cities — has arguably been a disproportionate response whose real intent is to overthrow a pro-U.S. Georgian government. But just as arguably, it's a less blatant violation of sovereignty to invade a troublesome neighbor than it is to invade a country 7,000 miles away that poses no immediate threat.

"International law prohibits the nondefensive use of force, and that's what transpired in Iraq," Falk says. "Russia is violating — just as we violated — the U.N. charter by sending its forces across the border."

There are also parallels between the situation in Georgia today and that in Kosovo in 1999 when NATO attacked Yugoslav troops that had been systematically killing Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.

That war contributed to the breakup of Yugoslavia and Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in February. Russia opposed both the war and Kosovar independence on the grounds they would encourage other separatist movements throughout the world.

But Russia is flip-flopping, too.

The Kremlin justifies its move into Georgia as protecting ethnic Russians and their right to self-determination, just as the United States justified the Kosovo war as protecting ethnic Albanians.

Yet you don't hear Russia saying much about Chechnya, another breakaway region that has long sought independence. After years of fighting that killed thousands of civilians and nearly obliterated the capital city of Grozny, Putin in 2007 installed a new Chechen president.

Now Chechnya is relatively peaceful — and firmly under Russian control.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

U.S. actions undermine the case against Russia 08/16/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 11:53am]
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