[Viewpoint]When the weak stand aloneIf China heralded the resurrection of the Chinese Empire with the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the Russian prime minister signaled the resurrection of Russian hegemony with a serious military intervention in Georgia.
The conflict has ended as Russia and Georgia accepted a peace plan. The military clash was intentional to show off Russia’s hegemony.
It erupted after Georgia attacked South Ossetia, an autonomous region in the country. From the beginning, it was an untenable war because of the extreme asymmetry between Russia and Georgia.
It is illogical that Russia, which is behind South Ossetia’s independence efforts, fights a war against Georgia with a population of 4.6 million.
Just as expected, Russia intervened in the conflict with the justification of protecting its citizens and crushed the Georgian forces at once. While Georgia initiated the offensive against South Ossetia, Russia’s response was clearly excessive. Russia responded to a slingshot with a cannon.
With oil money pouring into the country, Russia has recovered economic and military clout. Through the conflict, it boasts that it maintains its status of supremacy and that it does not have to care what others think. It also made sure who the leader of the Caucasus is. (The Caucasus is the strategic region in Eurasia that connects the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.) In addition, it sent a strong warning message that Russia will punish anyone who offends it.
Having dreamed of resurrecting a strong Russia, Vladimir Putin has been waiting for a chance to show off Russia’s power. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has set a goal of joining NATO, and the openly pro-American president has been a thorn in Putin’s side for a while.
Putin set a trap and waited, and President Saakashvili walked into it.
The 40-year-old president is a rare case of a pro-American politician from the former Soviet Union. In 1992, the year following Georgia’s independence, Saakashvili won a fellowship from the United States State Department and went to Columbia Law School. He received a JD degree from George Washington University and worked at a law firm in New York. After returning to Georgia, he switched to a successful political career. He led the Rose Revolution, a popular movement ignited by a rigged election in 2003, and displaced President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had promoted Saakashvili initially. He was elected president in 2004.
To U.S. President George W. Bush, who wished to spread democracy in the former Soviet region and hoped to establish a bridgehead to expand to the Caucasus, President Saakashvili was a fantastic partner. Georgia sent 2,000 troops to Iraq, the third most after the United States and Britain. President Bush responded with active military and economic assistance, and he personally visited Georgia in 2005.
However, Saakashvili made a serious mistake about how much he could rely on America’s friendship. He mistakenly thought that the United States would side with Georgia and take an active role in the conflict.
The United States, however, is still tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan and desperately needs Russia’s cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue. It cannot afford to risk a possible physical clash with Russia in order to help Georgia.
In reality, all Washington did was urge Russia to restrain itself and offer airlifts for Georgian soldiers stationed in Iraq. President Saakashvili is already being criticized at home and abroad for having taken a dangerous gamble with his country’s troops.
If the weak want to survive next to the powerful, it is important that they hold hands with another power. It is also crucial to watch the movements of the powerful in the neighborhood.
The iron rule of diplomacy for small and weak countries is to act within the limits of their strength. Georgia trusted the United States, which is far away, to back it up and challenged Russia, but it will end up losing its autonomous regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. President Saakashvili is being pressed to step down.
The Lee Myung-bak administration thinks the Korea-U.S. alliance is a panacea in Korea’s diplomacy, but it had better learn a lesson from the Georgian crisis.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok