Sunday, August 24, 2008

Stepping in Carefully

One must be careful when confronting a rabid, wounded bear. We don't want a fight, since Russia has nukes and one can never tell when paranoia will lead to irrational decisions; but we don't want to let the bear just maul anyone that gets in their way. So I figured we need to gradually insert our presence in low-key ways between Georgia and Russia until it becomes unthinkable for a calm Russian to restart the war and take Georgia completely.

America has taken another step to get our forces inside Georgia to stand between the Georgians and the Russians:

The guided missile destroyer USS McFaul, loaded with 72 pallets of humanitarian aid, is the first of five American ships scheduled to arrive this week.

The ship sailed to Batumi rather than Poti where Russians are camped outside the port city, so there should be no sight of American military personnel encountering Russian. But the symbol was not lost on the Georgians who received a boost at the sight of a modern American warship in their port:

"It's highly important for us here to have representatives of the navy of our biggest friend, the U.S.," Kezerashvili said. "This is a signal to the Russians, and the signal is: We are not alone. The world is with us."

The commander of the five-ship U.S. task force, Navy Capt. John Moore, downplayed the significance of a destroyer bringing aid. "We really are here on a humanitarian mission," he said.

It doesn't matter that we are downplaying our role. The ship sends the message without any elaboration.

And the sight of American ships in the Black Sea kind of freaked out the Russians:

The deputy chef of Russia's general staff suggested Saturday that the arrival of the McFaul and other NATO members ships would increase tensions in the Black Sea. Russia shares the sea with NATO members Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria as well as Georgia and Ukraine, another ex-Soviet whose pro-Western president also is leading a drive for NATRO membership.

"I don't think such a buildup will foster the stabilization of the atmosphere in the region," Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn as saying.

Like I said, base some warships in Romania and Bulgaria if those new NATO countries agree. The Littoral Combat Ship, when built, would be a nice force with occasional visits by Expeditionary Strike Groups (without the submarine, which I believe are banned by treaty from going through the Turkish straits) paying port calls to Ukraine and Georgia, I should think.

Perhaps the next step will be American demining experts with plenty of experience in Iraq. The Georgians could use that help, it seems:

In central Georgia, an oil train exploded and caught fire, sending plumes of black smoke into the air.

A Georgian official said the train hit a land mine and blamed the explosion on Russian forces, who withdrew from the area Friday. The Russian Defense Ministry declined to comment, saying it was not clear what happened.

And even if this is an isolated event and not part of a pattern of Russian vindictiveness, we should take the opportunity to send such military personnel in.

Even as the Georgians gain strength from our presence and gain anger at the Russians from Russia's continued presence inside Georgia and their cruel destruction on their way out (partially), the Ukrainians, too, have drawn a lesson from the episode:

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on Sunday joining the NATO alliance was vital to securing the country's defense.

Marking 17 years of Ukrainian independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yushchenko said Ukraine must also increase its own defenses -- a clear swipe at Russia which unnerved former Soviet republics when it sent troops into Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

NATO membership and the ability to fight an invasion are the correct lessons to digest.

As time passes, it is possible that Russia's invasion of Georgia will lead those ex-Soviet colonies that seek our friendship to rethink their position and cave to Russian demands. Which is why the months and years ahead will be crucial to making sure that these countries can count on our friendship and their own military to keep the bear at bay.

One caution is in order on Georgia even though I think they should be brought into NATO and their military rebuilt and reoriented. The Georgians have to know that NATO can't help them if they start another adventure to recapture Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Yes, Russia baited the Georgians and I think would have invaded Georgia even if Georgia hadn't taken the bait. But the Georgians were dumb enough to take the bait.

Georgia must take their effort to regain their lost regions to the diplomatic and economic level. Make their country a hard target with democracy and prosperity that will make it appealing to rejoin Georgia rather than join the new Sick Angry Man of Europe.

We need to make sure everyone takes careful steps. But we need to take those steps forward to erase the gray areas that tempt the Russians to strike and erase the temptation of new NATO allies to drag us into unwise wars.