When Nazi Germany seized control of Czechoslovakia in 1938, appeaser extraordinaire Neville Chamberlain referred to it as “a faraway country of which we know little.”
The Nazi invasion was based on the simple and reasonable enough-sounding pretext that ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland wanted to be annexed to the Fatherland. Hitler’s invasion of that small, seemingly insignificant country led, of course, to total war in Europe and a global conflict that cost 100 million lives. All because the Western democracies didn’t see—or didn’t want to see—the unsatiable appetites of an expansionist power led by a coldly calculating mass murderer.
It’s often said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Here we go again.
Russia has used the pretext that ethnic Russians living in a part of the independent republic of Georgia want to be folded into Russia. The Georgians, they say, are doing “ethnic cleansing” of the Russians there, requiring Russia to intervene to defend them.
Of course, this requires Russian tanks, fighter jets, and now ground troops to sweep into Georgia proper, killing thousands while they begin to occupy the country.
To many Americans, Georgia is a “faraway land of which we know little.” Nor do we much care: we’ve got Michael Phelps to cheer on and summer barbeques to attend to.
But as history has demonstrated time and time again, it’s the seemingly small crises that blow up into big ones. Really big ones.
This is one of those times.
The Cold War never ended. The Russians are behind every major state-based threat we face: Iran, North Korea (through China), Venezuela, Syria, the list goes on. They are creating new spheres of influence while re-establishing their old, Soviet-era ones. They extort Eastern Europe on its oil supply. They have blown up part of the oil pipeline that runs through Georgia and Turkey (a NATO member). They are authoritarian at home and expansionist abroad.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had this invasion planned for weeks, if not months. Before ordering the bombs to fall and the tanks to roll, he didn’t rush to the UN seeking international approval. He didn’t seek sanctions or resolutions. He just marched in with a full-on invasion. (If the United States had done this, holy hell would be breaking loose in the hallowed halls of the UN. We wouldn’t be able to count the official condemnations of “America’s reckless, unauthorized breach of international law.” With the Russians, we get a big yawn and a shrug of powerlessness.)
Georgia is a pro-Western, fragile new democracy. It has had 2000 troops in Iraq, making it the third biggest contributor to coalition forces there after the United States and Great Britain. It is struggling to establish its democratic, free market independence in Russia’s long shadow. The Russians didn’t like all of the progress Georgia had been making, nor did it appreciate Georgia’s application to NATO. So Russia rolled in: “If I can’t have you, nobody will!”
The Russians are hammering the old Soviet empire back together. They had been doing it through economic (primarily energy) extortion. Now they’re doing it the old-fashioned way: through force. The Russians have been doing this for centuries. It’s not new.
It’s incredible that the western democracies seem impotent to stop this invasion of a democracy and reverse it. Short of military action, we could strip Russia of its G-8 membership, levy economic sanctions, and stop its membership to the World Trade Organization. Forget about going to the UN: Russia will veto everything.
The western democracies need to show a backbone. What would Reagan do? What would Thatcher do? For heaven’s sake, what would George H. W. Bush do? (Even he went to war to reverse an invasion of the petrotocracy, Kuwait. Georgia may not be sitting on a ton of oil, but it’s the transit point for a tremendous amount of it.)
This is one of those moments when we will wonder why the good guys were paralyzed while the bad guys marched. It’s one of those moments on which the future of freedom hangs. It’s one of those moments when the bad guys test the good guys. And so far, the good guys are contemplating their navels while the bad guys scorch the ground of liberty.
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