Wednesday, 20 August 2008

NATO's 'Empty Words'

The Wall Street Journal, August 20

"Empty words." That's how Moscow glibly dismissed NATO's criticism yesterday of Russia's continued occupation of Georgia. The Russians may be bullies, but like all bullies they know weakness when they see it.

The most NATO ministers could muster at their meeting in Brussels was a statement that they "cannot continue with business as usual" with Russia. There was no move to fast-track Georgia's bid to join NATO, nor a pledge to help the battered democracy rebuild its defenses.

Asked about NATO reconstruction aid, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer pointedly said, twice, that it would go for "civilian infrastructure." So here we have a military alliance going out of its way to stress that it will not be providing any military aid. The alliance didn't even cancel any cooperative programs with Russia, though Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said "one can presume" that "this issue will have to be taken into view." That must have the Kremlin shaking.

NATO leaders also failed to mention Ukraine, another applicant for NATO membership that has angered Moscow in recent years and could become its next target. Also missing was any indication that the alliance would begin making long-delayed plans for defending the Baltic member states and other countries on its eastern flank in case of attack. The only good news of the day was that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will eventually send up to 100 monitors, albeit unarmed, to Georgia.

Meanwhile, Russia found new ways to ignore the West and punish the Georgians who are actually abiding by a cease-fire. After exchanging prisoners with Georgia, Russian troops took about 20 Georgians prisoner after briefly retaking the oil port of Poti, blindfolded them and held them at gunpoint. Russia also sank another Georgian navy vessel and stole four U.S. Humvees that had been used in U.S.-Georgian training exercises and were waiting to be shipped out of the country.

All of this continues the Russian pattern of the past week, in which it agrees to a cease-fire and promises to withdraw, only to leave its forces in place while continuing to damage Georgia's military and even its civilian centers. Russian commanders had the cheek to suggest that a return to the troop placements before war broke out on August 8 means that 2,000 Georgian soldiers would have to return to Iraq, from which they had been airlifted home.

One of Moscow's goals is clearly to humiliate Georgia enough to topple President Mikheil Saakashvili, so he can be replaced with a pliable leader who will "Finlandize" the country, to borrow the old Cold War term for acquiescing to Kremlin wishes. In the bargain, it is also betting it can humiliate the West, which will give the people of Ukraine real doubts about whether joining NATO is worth the risk of angering Moscow. Judging by NATO's demoralizing response on Tuesday, the Kremlin is right.

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