Guest opinion: Georgia redux: Putin tries old tactics in Crimea

2014-03-18T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Georgia redux: Putin tries old tactics in CrimeaBy JEFFREY T. RENZ The Billings Gazette
March 18, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Here in the Caucasus Republic of Georgia, my friends and neighbors were not surprised by Russia’s invasion of Crimea. After all, Georgia has suffered at the hands of similar Russian practices since 1992.

We get the idea that but for Russian President Vladimir Putin none of this would have happened. But this view is flawed.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been like an abusive and controlling ex-husband who cannot let go. It wants to continue to control the lives of its former republics. And it is unacceptable for Ukraine or Georgia or Kyrgyzstan to date someone else, especially an old rival like NATO.

Secession encouraged

In the 1990s, after Georgia declared its independence, Russia encouraged three Georgian provinces, Adjara and Abkhazia on the Black Sea and South Ossetia in the North Caucasus, to secede. Adjara and Abkhazia were the sites of several Russian naval ports and military bases. South Ossetia controlled the Roki Tunnel, one of the few routes across the 4,000 and 5,000 meter high Caucasus Mountains. Acting as “peacemakers,” Russian troops joined Abkhazian militia as they ejected more than 100,000 ethnic Georgians (who made up the largest ethnic group in the province) from the region. Russians remained as self-annointed peace-keepers.

In South Ossetia, Russia armed Ossetian separatists. A 1992 agreement left Russian soldiers on Georgian territory, again as peace-keepers.

In April 2008, NATO entertained Georgia’s request to join the alliance. Not long after, in the summer months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Ossetian separatists began shelling and shooting at Georgian villages in and near South Ossetia. They attacked Georgian officials of the South Ossetian government and detonated IEDs that killed Georgian police. Georgia’s army responded proportionately. Tensions increased and pressure built on Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili stop the violence.

As the Olympics’ opening day approached, Russia announced that it was going to conduct military preparedness exercises on Georgia’s border. (Shortly after President Yanukovych was deposed by the Ukrainian Parliament, Russia announced that it was going to conduct military preparedness exercises on Ukraine’s border.)

Excuse for invasion

When Georgian President Saakashvili finally acted to reassert control over its breakaway province and end the attacks that originated there, Russia declared that it was necessary to act to protect Russians in South Ossetia (The same justification offered for entering the Ukraine last month.)

On August 7, 2008, a few hours before the opening ceremonies in Beijing, Russia invaded Georgia. On March 1, 2013, a few days after the closing ceremonies in Sochi, Russian units left their bases and invaded Ukraine. Russian soldiers remain in Georgia.

Today’s Russia is dangerous and aggressive. Europe, which depends on Russian oil and gas, will not respond with economic sanctions.

The United States’ options are limited. Sen. Marco Rubio’s eight steps are mere pin-pricks. We took many of the same steps in 2008 and Russia couldn’t have cared less.

What can the United States do?

During the Cold War the United States stationed a single infantry brigade in Berlin. The Berlin Brigade remained in West Berlin until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those of us who served in the Army in Germany knew that if the Soviets decided to seize West Berlin, the Berlin Brigade would cease to exist in a matter of hours. But it had great strategic significance. Seizing West Berlin would have required an attack on the Berlin Brigade, leading to a war with NATO. Russia built a wall instead.

An offer

Georgian soldiers serve next to American soldiers in Afghanistan. We should serve next to them in Georgia. Let us quietly offer to station a brigade or a battalion in Georgia. The presence of a trip-wire will deter Russia’s aggressive tendencies.

Russian people must come to see what its leadership will not: that global cooperation and interconnection improve the lives of everyone. Only then will Russia turn from a culture of competition and aggression to one of coordination and cooperation.

Jeffrey T. Renz is a University of Montana law professor. He is a Fulbright scholar in the Republic of Georgia.

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