Although he is a pragmatic man and a master of realpolitik, Vladimir Putin’s actions this week have raised a fundamental philosophical question which we in the west are compelled to answer. Which do we value more, peace or freedom?
No matter what the diplomats and equivocators and professional liars in the Kremlin say, the truth about the Georgian situation is stark and unavoidable. On little pretext Russia has invaded a sovereign nation, assisted their Ossetian henchmen in widespread murder, plunder and ethnic cleansing, bombed and shelled civilian targets, violated a long standing truce and a recent cease fire, and is making war on one of the few successful democratic republics in Central Asia. To crown their audacity, they have demanded that the legitimately elected pro-western and pro-capitalist president of Georgia be removed from power by force to be replaced with an unelected puppet more willing to take his orders from Moscow.
Georgia was not a perfect country, but it was a model for freedom, capitalism and progressive, humane government for its region and the world. In the midst of some of the most troubled and troublesome nations on the map, it stood out as a symbol of hope and a sign that representative government was possible even under harsh and unstable conditions. Russia seeks to crush that hope and bring an end to freedom in the region, demanding the de facto return of Georgia to their resurgent authoritarian empire.
Putin has said that if Georgia and its western allies capitulate he will restore peace in the region – a peace which he himself shattered. All we have to give up for that peace is the freedom of the few million people who live in Georgia, an obscure little country on the frontier of Europe which has only been free for a couple of decades anyway. He has presented it as a fait accompli. Either the Georgians will submit nonviolently at the urging of the West or they will submit under the threat of Russian guns. Either way, they must give up their freedom. Then we will all enjoy peace. For Russia the peace of empire. For the West the peace of cowards. For Georgia the peace of slavery.
For the West this makes an age-old question as stark and immediate as it has ever been. What price is worth paying for freedom, especially the freedom of others who are far away, weak and surrounded by enemies? Sarkozy and Merkel and most of Europe seem to have decided that any price beyond words and pats on the back is too much to pay. I have to wonder if they will sell their own freedom so cheaply when Russia comes knocking on their doors.
As for the United States, we seem to be taking a more active role. Georgia has been a good ally to us in Iraq and in that part of the world in general. It is the lynchpin of the emerging democracies of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Armenia, all of which are threatened by hostile neighbors. If Georgia falls, then freedom in the region will be threatened and Russia will feel that it has free license to use threats and intimidation and even military force to bring other breakaway republics back into the arms of empire. It appears that our government realizes that freedom in that region and a legitimate peace based on that freedom is at least worth some commitment of resources and manpower. We have started an airlift of humanitarian aid, supplies and support and according to the latest reports US forces will be taking control of Georgia’s air and naval ports, which will require a significant presence of US forces.
It certainly will not be enough to stand up to Russia if it continues to push its extreme demands and move more troops into the area. US forces and resources are stretched too thin to take on another major commitment, though redeploying forces from nearby Iraq might be a possibility. It might even be an excellent excuse for reducing our presence in Iraq and letting them stand on their own, which recent progress there suggests might be a realistic possibility in the immediate future.
I’m not about to endorse it and I’m hesitant to even suggest it, but as thousands of Russian troops with hundreds of armored vehicles settle in to occupy the area around Gori and take control over much of Georgia and the oil pipeline, I cannot suppress memories of the days when America was willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Make no mistake. In Georgia today liberty itself is being threatened and it will not stop there. An unchallenged victory for Russia will just be the first step in the spread of authoritarianism and empire throughout that region. The Georgians will not be the last to bend their knees to the tyrant if we let them stand alone.
Look in your heart. Do you think that it is right for any people who have won a hard fought and long-denied freedom to be forced to give it up and accept the peace that comes with capitulation to tyranny? No matter how unrealistic is may be, somewhere deep inside, where pride and a love of freedom still live, wouldn’t you secretly like to see a column of US armor and infantry supported by Peshmerga and Iraqi Army auxiliaries moving north out of Kurdistan to defend Tiblisi and defy the demands of Russian imperialism?