Bear claw on the trigger

Georgia's offensive against its breakaway province gave Russia the provocation it was waiting for.

georgia stop russia 224 (photo credit: AP)
georgia stop russia 224
(photo credit: AP)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was Russia's last voice of conscience, binding it morally to the horrors of its Stalinist period. Josef Stalin, born Dzugashvili, was of course Georgian, but was famously ashamed of his ethnicity and, like Solzhenitsyn, was a believer in the greatness of Russia. And while it's difficult to overstate Solzhenitsyn's role in exposing the brutality of the Gulag, the Russia that reemerged and eventually embraced both him and Stalin has again become an imperialist aggressor. Less than a week after Solzhenitsyn's death, Russia has entered into its first post-Soviet armed conflict outside its borders. Did Solzhenitsyn see this coming? He might have: In February of this year, Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow's representative to NATO, threatened the use of armed force in support of Serbia during the riots surrounding Kosovo's declaration of independence. An alarming statement, though it would have been complicated for Russia to navigate tanks to Belgrade through the former Eastern Bloc, more than half of which is now part of the European Union. Russia barked, but couldn't bite. And so it waited. ON THURSDAY night, Russia got the provocation it needed: Georgian troops launched a surprise attack in a bid to take control of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, a region that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had promised to reintegrate into Georgia's territory. This time, the maneuver was much simpler: Reinforcements for the peacekeeping troops already stationed there had only to travel through a long tunnel that connects the breakaway region to North Ossetia, which is part of the Russian Federation. And it seems that the bombers shown off at last year's air show in Moscow were also standing by. They struck the Georgian city of Gori, the outskirts of the capital of Tbilisi and the Black Sea port of Poti - which are, respectively, 13, 91 and 189 kilometers from South Ossetia. Parts of Russia's Black Sea fleet are converging on the coast of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia. All of which Solzhenitsyn might also have seen coming. The decidedly westward-leaning Saakashvili gained power in the Rose Revolution of 2004, posing trouble for Russia with his proclaimed alliance with the US. In March 2006, after many tough words, Russia banned the import of Georgian wine and sparkling water - two key revenue producers for the country. This was done on the pretext that the products were of poor quality. But Saakashvili wasn't intimidated, and in October of that year Georgia arrested and deported four Russian military officers it accused of spying. Russia severed all ties and enforced a total land, air and economic embargo. Then it started harassing all Georgian nationals in a hunt for illegal workers. In a Solzhenitsyn-like twist, there were reports that police called public school teachers asking them for the addresses of children with Georgian last names, whose parents they would then arrest. Georgians started to be deported by the planeload. SAAKASHVILI FACED calls from the opposition to step down because of the great economic and social distress caused by his policies, and so in 2007 he called early elections, which he won by a slim margin. This gave him confidence to continue the pursuit of yet another campaign goal: to make Georgia a NATO member. Georgia's candidacy was raised at a NATO summit in April, only two months after Rogozin's warning to NATO about Russia's readiness to use force. Russia stated that it would regard Georgia's entry into NATO as a direct threat. The US backed Georgia's bid, while France and Germany made up the main opposition. Ironically, as a NATO member, Georgia would never have been able to mount this week's arguably misguided offensive. And like several other conflicts in the world, this one also involves oil: The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which runs from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Turkey, brings oil directly from Central Asia to Europe, bypassing Russia. The issue isn't just Russia's monopoly and the subsequent danger of lost revenue. Russia uses its status as Europe's main supplier of natural gas to exert or divert diplomatic pressure, so any energy inputs it doesn't control threaten that power. As small as it is, Georgia is the first country in the world to take a stand against Russia. From Russia's point of view, a pipeline in Georgia would be less dangerous if its leader kowtowed to Vladimir Putin - the same president-turned-prime minister that Solzhenitsyn befriended toward the end of his life, implicitly and explicitly approving Russia's intentions of imperialist, Eastern Orthodox-tinged aggression. And while Solzhenitsyn earned the status of a saint for protesting the repression he experienced in the Soviet Union, by supporting the current Russian authority - and being blind to its tightening grip on Mother Russia and its neighbors - he has forfeited the possibility of being called a prophet. The writer is editor of Zeek: Russified, a volume of works by contemporary Russian Jewish writers, poets and artists.