During the Peloponnesian War, as powerful Athens
prepared to put the independent-minded, but tiny, island of Melos
to the sword, the Melians appealed to principles of honor and fair play in a
bid to save themselves.
The Athenians scoffed, noting that "the strong do as they will and the
weak suffer as they must." And suffer the Melians did -- alone
Georgia is a latter-day Melos. It has been battered by Russia's
over-the-top reaction to what began as a shoot-out between Georgian troops and
forces belonging to the Russian-supported breakaway territory of South Ossetia
and segued into a clash between Russian and Georgian military units.
Even if one accepts the Russian version in its entirety, the severity of Moscow's response was
both unnecessary and unjustified. The United States and its European
allies are indignant over the Kremlin's conduct. But, simply put, they will not
do anything that truly makes Russia
The reasons for patience and for taking the long view are already being
offered: There are too many important issues on which Russia's
cooperation is critical, pushing it into a corner will only strengthen its
authoritarianism and bellicosity, the better course is to practice patient
diplomacy... and so on.
The proposals now being proffered by pundits to arm Georgia, to boycott the
2014 Winter Olympics that will be held in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi,
and to evict Russia from the Group of 8 will have no takers. Such measures may
have been applied in an ideal world; they won't in the real one. This is unfair
which is the victim; but it is nevertheless the reality.
Another unpalatable truth is that Russia's behavior in this instance
is the norm, not the exception: Great powers impose their will on weaker
neighbors and limit their freedom of action -- all the time.
Airy discourses about the commerce-driven dynamics of globalization and new
norms of international conduct will not vanquish realpolitik. Just as other
powerful states have done, Russia
will be persistent in preventing weak neighbors that it considers to be part of
its legitimate sphere of influence from forging links with its adversaries; the
means used will vary, but not the ends. In today's Russia, Vladimir Putin personifies
this policy, but it reflects deeper realities rooted in balance of
In this crisis, America
and Europe have also behaved as states
invariably have: They do not want to spend blood and treasure when the risks
are too high and vital interests are not involved. In this instance, no state
within NATO wants to pick a fight with Russia right on its doorstep. Nor
do they wish to offer Georgia
a guarantee of future protection.
The prevailing view seems to be that Russia's
full-bore attack on Georgia
chance to gain entry into NATO; the reverse is more likely to be the case.
NATO, as seem at its Bucharest summit meeting
earlier this year, is already divided on Georgia's membership, and the
discord is apt to deepen now that the implications of including it in the
alliance are clear. Russia's
attack on Georgia
also illustrates how little gratitude matters in the politics among nations and
how easily it is trumped by the dictates of power.
When Georgia's president,
Mikheil Saakashvili, sent troops to Iraq, and was hailed as a steadfast
democratic ally by President George W. Bush, he no doubt expected to win some
good will that could be redeemed in an hour of need. Perhaps he believed that the
United States would mobilize
its allies and admonish Russia
if it were to attack Georgia
-- perhaps even offer tangible assistance.
If so, he miscalculated, and the United States is culpable for not
making it clear that its thanks would not translate into tanks.
This crisis also tells us something - and it's not reassuring -- about the
efficacy of international organizations when it comes to handling aggression.
Some observers have looked to the United Nations to do right by Georgia. But
what does that mean exactly? The UN can no more check Russia than it could block the Bush
administration's preventive war against Iraq.
lacked a UN mandate and was criticized by most of its members mattered little
to the White House. The same is true of the Kremlin; it will continue to debate
its critics in the Security Council, and joined by its ally, China, will veto any resolution that
In short, what happens in the UN will make for good theater: There have
been, and will be, pious declarations, angry denunciations and sanctimonious
finger-pointing. But none of this will help Georgia's
fundamental problem, which is the disparity between its power and Russia's, and Moscow's
determination to press that advantage to define what Georgia can and cannot do.
Utterly unsentimental and thoroughly cynical, Putin understands the
arithmetic of power. In attacking a small and weak state located across Russia's border
he did not take any big risks; and he bet that the West wouldn't either.
Bush did not look deeply enough into the Russian prime minister's soul -- and
he apparently hadn't read his Thucydides in awhile.