THE acute phase of the crisis provoked by the Georgian forces’ assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, is now behind us. But how can one erase from memory the horrifying scenes of the nighttime rocket attack on a peaceful town, the razing of entire city blocks, the deaths of people taking cover in basements, the destruction of ancient monuments and ancestral graves?
Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction.
The decision by the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, to now cease hostilities was the right move by a responsible leader. The Russian president acted calmly, confidently and firmly. Anyone who expected confusion in Moscow was disappointed.
The planners of this campaign clearly wanted to make sure that, whatever the outcome, Russia would be blamed for worsening the situation. The West then mounted a propaganda attack against Russia, with the American news media leading the way.
The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing — before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader’s deceptive statements.
It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr. Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter. What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace.
If this military misadventure was a surprise for the Georgian leader’s foreign patrons, so much the worse. It looks like a classic wag-the-dog story.
Mr. Saakashvili had been lavished with praise for being a staunch American ally and a real democrat — and for helping out in Iraq. Now America’s friend has wrought disorder, and all of us — the Europeans and, most important, the region’s innocent civilians — must pick up the pieces.
Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.
The problems of the Caucasus region cannot be solved by force. That has been tried more than once in the past two decades, and it has always boomeranged.
What is needed is a legally binding agreement not to use force. Mr. Saakashvili has repeatedly refused to sign such an agreement, for reasons that have now become abundantly clear.
The West would be wise to help achieve such an agreement now. If, instead, it chooses to blame Russia and re-arm Georgia, as American officials are suggesting, a new crisis will be inevitable. In that case, expect the worst.
In recent days, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush have been promising to isolate Russia. Some American politicians have threatened to expel it from the Group of 8 industrialized nations, to abolish the NATO-Russia Council and to keep Russia out of the World Trade Organization.
These are empty threats. For some time now, Russians have been wondering: If our opinion counts for nothing in those institutions, do we really need them? Just to sit at the nicely set dinner table and listen to lectures?
Indeed, Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here’s the independence of Kosovo for you. Here’s the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here’s the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?
There is much talk now in the United States about rethinking relations with Russia. One thing that should definitely be rethought: the habit of talking to Russia in a condescending way, without regard for its positions and interests.
Our two countries could develop a serious agenda for genuine, rather than token, cooperation. Many Americans, as well as Russians, understand the need for this. But is the same true of the political leaders?
A bipartisan commission led by Senator Chuck Hagel and former Senator Gary Hart has recently been established at Harvard to report on American-Russian relations to Congress and the next president. It includes serious people, and, judging by the commission’s early statements, its members understand the importance of Russia and the importance of constructive bilateral relations.
But the members of this commission should be careful. Their mandate is to present “policy recommendations for a new administration to advance America’s national interests in relations with Russia.” If that alone is the goal, then I doubt that much good will come out of it. If, however, the commission is ready to also consider the interests of the other side and of common security, it may actually help rebuild trust between Russia and the United States and allow them to start doing useful work together.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 20, 2008, on page A23 of the New York edition.