May 23, 2019


Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia was clearly a disproportionate response to the situation there. But holding up Georgia as an innocent victim of Russian power run amok is an oversimplification of a complex problem. The cease-fire, brokered by the French, must be upheld. Then, with support from the international community, an overdue dialogue on protecting the sovereignty of both Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia must begin.

The roots of the conflict go back at least 20 years to when South Ossetia first tried to separate from Georgia. Despite rejections of autonomy from Georgian authorities, South Ossetia held its own elections and later referendums on independence, which the rest of the world declared invalid.

Last year, the International Crisis Group warned that resolution of the Georgian-South Ossetia conflict was progressing too slowly. “The sides view the conflict differently, are mutually suspicious and trapped in conflicting fears about the other’s security calculations,” the group wrote.

The same applies to the next level of the conflict, between Russia and Georgia. Russian officials say they were coming to the aid of South Ossetia, which it says was the target of Georgian attacks last week. Georgia says Russian forces had long been massed on the border and invaded the country and attacked peaceful villages last week.

Writing in The Washington Post on Tuesday, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, called Georgia’s action a “blitzkrieg” and blamed Georgia for trying to “impose its will by force.” “Clearly, the only way to solve the South Ossetian problem … is through peaceful means,” he wrote.

In Thursday’s Post, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili focused on Russia’s aggression. “This war threatens not only Georgia but security and liberty around the world,” he wrote. “If the international community fails to take a resolute stand, it will have sounded the death knell for the spread of freedom and democracy everywhere.”

At least both men agree that international intervention is needed. Although this is not a resumption of the Cold War or the last stand of freedom, it is a serious problem that demands a serious solution.

The International Crisis Group offers guidance, although one of its first recommendations in its 2007 report – avoid inflammatory rhetoric – has already been violated. It calls for a direct Georgian-Ossetian dialogue, with international support, that must begin with an understanding of why both entities feel vulnerable. Removing fortifications and internationalizing the peacekeeping force already in the region will help reduce tensions and suspicions. Broadening economic development to ensure it does not benefit only one group also is an essential effort that the U.S. and other countries can make.

Russian overreaction was the wrong way to bring the conflict to the world’s attention. But now that is has, real diplomatic solutions must be pursued.

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