Outside editorial: Next steps on Georgia: U.S. can respond

Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A streak of defeatist thinking about Russia's continuing occupation of Georgia has had it that there is little the West can do about the crisis, first because Moscow's cooperation is needed for more important matters, such as the containment of Iran, and second because the United States and Europe lack practical means of leverage over Vladimir Putin's regime.

Several days ago we addressed the first part of this canard, pointing out that the "strategic partnership" that President Bush once sought to build with Putin has been little more than an illusion.

Now, with Russian troops still dug in around the Georgian port of Poti in blatant violation of a cease-fire agreement, it's becoming urgent to re-examine that second assumption about Western impotence. Fortunately, it, too, is groundless: There is, in fact, much that could be done to raise the cost of the ongoing occupation and to weaken Putin and the sinister circle around him.

The reason Russian troops are still blockading Georgia's largest port, planting mines along its railroads and stopping traffic on main road arteries is that Russia has yet to accomplish its central objectives: to depose Georgia's president and destroy Georgia's fragile democracy. The United States and its allies can still prevent that from happening, if they act quickly and energetically - and thereby inflict an endgame defeat on Putin. Bush's order that U.S. ships and planes deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia was a good first step. But what's needed now is a large and conspicuous supply and reconstruction operation that will ensure that the Russian occupation cannot cause a collapse of the Georgian economy. Promised international observers - which Moscow agreed to - must meanwhile be deployed as quickly as possible, to keep Russian forces from staging provocations that might lead to further fighting.

The Russian economy, dependent on Western investment and technology, has already suffered a sharp reversal thanks to the invasion: Foreign currency reserves plummeted this month as investors withdrew money from the country at the fastest rate since the 1998 ruble crisis. Steeped in nostalgia for the ways of the Soviet Union, Putin may be insensitive to Russia's vulnerability to the pressures the U.S. Treasury can apply in 21st-century capital markets. But the corrupt circle of oligarchs around him, who have deposited billions in Western banks and bought up mansions and soccer teams, could quickly and legitimately be squeezed.

There is certainly no reason why U.S. and international agencies should not vigorously pursue the numerous allegations of corrupt practices by Russian firms. If Kremlin-connected companies violate Georgian or international law through their actions in the occupied provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, their assets - gas stations in the United States, for example - could be subject to seizure.

The Bush administration, we're told, is planning to withdraw a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia from Congress. It retains the options of abrogating the bilateral U.S.-Russian agreement needed for Moscow's membership in the World Trade Organization and suspending negotiations on arms control.

If Putin does not comply with the cease-fire agreement in the coming days, such bilateral sanctions will be needed. In the meantime, the administration should be working hard to ensure that Georgia's government and economy emerge stronger from the crisis - and that Russia realizes it will only be weakened by its continuing occupation of a neighboring nation.



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