A bear of a problem

Our view : Russian power shouldn't go unchecked

August 17, 2008

Power may corrupt, but the powerful often get their way. The latest example is Russia's invasion of Georgia after the former Soviet republic attacked Moscow-supported separatists in a restive province. Last week's conflict was presaged as much by history as by current events: the independence of Kosovo, rising world demand for oil and the Kremlin's unease over growing Western influence in its former vassal states.

Last week, the problem was that neither the United States nor its European partners could persuade the Russians to leave immediately. Nor did they have the will (or the means) to forcibly evict them. That left Russian tanks and troops on Georgian soil within spitting distance of the Georgian capitol of Tbilisi despite a French-negotiated cease fire. Meanwhile, the White House's policy of engagement with Russia - and President Bush's personal relationship with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin - were in tatters. With friends like Mr. Putin, who needs enemies?

The territorial integrity of Georgia remains in jeopardy, despite tough talk from Mr. Bush on the democratic nation's sovereignty. Russia's foreign minister signaled last week that it was unrealistic to expect South Ossetia and Abkhazia to remain under Georgian control. That puts the Bush administration on a collision course with Mr. Putin, with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili standing precariously in the middle.

There should be consequences to the Kremlin's punishing use of military force in Georgia. While American troops help deliver relief supplies to Georgia, the U.S. and its allies must agree on a series of punitive measures to contain Moscow's unchecked ambitions.

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