POLITICS SEPTEMBER 1, 2008
The future of Russia's excursion in Georgia remains to be determined. But some conclusions can already be drawn:
1. Russian power is extraordinarily brutal in the post-Soviet era, as we have already seen in Chechnya. This brutality has been confirmed -- although on a smaller scale -- in the spectacle of the Russian army occupying a sovereign country, moving through it as it pleases, advancing and retreating at will, and casually destroying the military and civilian infrastructures of a young democracy as an astonished world watches. Today it is Georgia. Tomorrow will it be Ukraine? Or, in the name of the same solidarity with the supposedly persecuted Russian-speaking populations, will it be the Baltic countries? Or Poland?
2. The new Russia is indifferent to international protests, admonishments and warnings. The Cold War had its rules, its codes. It was a time when signs were carefully deciphered. There was a kind of half-warrior, half-pacifist hermeneutics in play, during which we spent our time reacting to what philosopher Michel Serres called "the signal fires and foghorns" of the adversary. In this new-look Cold War, there are no more signals. No more codes. Instead, Russia offers a permanently obscene gesture to "messages" we know will have absolutely no effect. Was it not at the same moment Condoleezza Rice was in Tbilisi that Vladimir Putin, with a cynicism and aplomb that would have been unthinkable in yesterday's world, chose to advance his troops as far as 20 miles from the capital?
3. Russia has no shame when it comes to twisting principles and ideals. It brandishes the "precedent" of Kosovo -- as if there could be anything in common between the case of a Serbian province hounded, battered and broken by ethnic purification that lasted for decades, and the situation of Ossetia, victim of a "genocide" that, according to the latest news (a report by Human Rights Watch) consists of 47 deaths. And look how they turn to their profit -- as well as that of the same Russian-speaking minorities they want to bring back into the bosom of the Empire -- the argument of the "duty to intervene" that might justify the exactions, in Gori and elsewhere, of the Russian army and its militias. This is a fine, grand principle dear to the French foreign minister and a few others. How daring! Well, Mr. Putin dared, Mr. Putin thought about it and did it.
4. European -- and in this instance French -- diplomacy is weak. We expect a great democracy to condemn and sanction the aggressor, without nuance. But in effect the opposite was done. The party that was attacked was the one sanctioned. The weak, not the strong, was made to yield. Just as 13 years ago in Dayton, Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic was forced to sign, with a heavy heart, the agreement laying out the dismemberment of his country. Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, was also forced to ratify a document that the Russians speak of as the "Medvedev document." Not a word in it mentions the territorial integrity of the country. Then there are the famous "additional security" clauses acknowledging the Russian army's right to be stationed there and to patrol, as scandalous in principle as they are vague in their modalities of application. Has the world turned upside down? This must be a dream.
5. Western public opinion fell with disconcerting facility for the thesis advanced -- from the very first day -- by the Kremlin's propaganda machine. We know now that the Russian army had been hard at work on its war preparations since before Aug. 8. We know that it massed at the "border" between Georgia and Ossetia a considerable military and paramilitary logistical presence. We know the Russians had methodically repaired the railroad tracks that the troop-transport trains were to take, and we know that at least 150 tanks went through the Roki tunnel separating the two Ossetias the morning of Aug. 8.
In other words, no one can ignore the fact that President Saakashvili only decided to act when he no longer had a choice, and war had already come. In spite of this accumulation of facts that should have been blindingly obvious to all scrupulous, good-faith observers, many in the media rushed as one man toward the thesis of the Georgians as instigators, as irresponsible provocateurs of the war.
We must re-examine all of this. We must analyze in greater depth the mechanisms of a blindness that may, if we are not careful, perpetuate the Western "decline in courage" denounced in his time by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but which we thought belonged to the past. Reason, if not honor, demands that we go to the rescue of Europe in Tbilisi.
French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy is the author, most recently, of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Ce Grand Cadavre à la Renverse. Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.
This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.