The United States faces a dilemma in choosing an effective response to Russian aggression in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. It has done little to ease Russian paranoia about having a Western military partner on its border. Washington has not put Georgian nationalists on a leash, and it has little leverage, anyway — even with the Europeans — to force a change in Moscow's attitude and policy. But all three nations need to tone down the rhetoric. The United States needs to support democracy in the region without losing the long view of its broad and common interests with Russia.
The first task is to deal with the fallout of Russia's military offensive in Georgia last month. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was reckless in using military force to reassert control over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Either he was unprepared for Russia's response or overly eager to test the West's commitment to bring Georgia into NATO. It was a disturbing sign of Georgia's meager capabilities and its willingness to put national interests ahead of regional security and superpower relations. His actions, combined with his eagerness to rebuild his country's armed forces, should be a caution flag for Washington.
Russia's push into Georgia was an attempt to roll back Georgia's status as a sovereign state and to expand Moscow's sphere of influence. Though hostilities have stopped, Russia's territorial ambitions are very much alive, as shown by Moscow's recognition of South Ossetia and a second separatist area. Russia needs to understand that interfering in Georgia damages its standing. While the West may need Russia more than Georgia for energy and a range of political and security needs, the Russians have a stake in furthering their integration in the global economy and protecting their homeland from terror and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The West can help make this case.
The United States is doing right to help Georgia recover and to send the message that it will continue to support democratic movement in the Caucasus. The humanitarian aid the United States has provided in recent weeks has helped to alleviate the immediate crisis, and Wednesday's announcement that Washington would provide $1-billion in aid over the next two years should help rebuild both the nation's infrastructure and public faith in its government. Just as important, the aid and diplomatic cover buys the United States and Europe time to build what consensus they can on how to respond.
Russian President Dmitry A. Medvedev did not help Tuesday by characterizing the Georgian president as "a political corpse,'" implying Russia would not negotiate with him. The hatred between the Georgian and Russian leaders is a force to reckon with in the current drama, but U.S. leaders, at least, should not lose sight of what's important. Russian leaders see an opportunity in their back yard, and they hold most of the cards. The job now is to find enough leverage to stabilize the crisis.