Our first duty is to highlight Russia’s Orwellian tactics. Moscow says it invaded Georgia to protect its citizens in South Ossetia. Over the past five years it cynically laid the groundwork for this pretence, by illegally distributing passports in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, “manufacturing” Russian citizens to protect. The cynicism of Russia’s concern for ethnic minorities can be expressed in one word: Chechnya.
This cynicism has become hypocritical and criminal. Since Russia’s invasion, its forces have been “cleansing” Georgian villages in both regions – including outside the conflict zone – using arson, rape and execution. Human rights groups have documented these actions. Moscow has flipped the Kosovo precedent on its head: where the west acted to prevent ethnic cleansing, in Georgia ethnic cleansing is being used by Russia to consolidate its military annexation.
Other Russian lies have also been debunked. The most egregious was Moscow’s absurd claim on the eve of the invasion that Georgia was committing genocide in South Ossetia, with 2,000 civilian deaths. A week later, Moscow admitted that only 133 people had died. These were overwhelmingly military casualties and came after the Russian invasion. But the genocide claim served its goal. In a media era hungry for content, the big lie still works.
Russia’s campaign to redraw the map of Europe is based on the propagation of misinformation. On Wednesday on this page, Mr Medvedev asserted that Georgia attacked South Ossetia. In fact, our forces entered the conflict zone after Russia rolled its tanks on to our soil, passing through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia, Georgia. Mr Medvedev also claimed Russia had no designs on our territory. Why then did it bomb and occupy Georgian cities such as Gori? Why does it continue to occupy our strategic port of Poti?
Moscow also counts on historical amnesia. It hopes the west will forget ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia drove out more than three-quarters of the local population – ethnic Georgians, Greeks, Jews and others – leaving the minority Abkhaz in control. Russia also wants us to forget that South Ossetia was run not by its residents (almost half were Georgian before this month’s ethnic cleansing) but by Russian officials. When the war started, South Ossetia’s de facto prime minister, defence minister and security minister were ethnic Russians with no ties to the region.
The next step in Russia’s invasion script, of disinformation and annexation, is regime change. If Moscow can oust Georgia’s democratically elected government, it can then intimidate other democratic European governments. Where will this end? What we know about Russia, and especially the current regime, is not encouraging.
Last week Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, put us on alert: “Russia does not really know where it begins and where it ends.” He noted that the Moscow regime is “a lot more sophisticated” than the Soviets under Leonid Brezhnev. He should know – he was on the front line the last time Russia invaded a European country.
Mr Medvedev is now making menacing statements about Ukraine and Moldova and is replicating its Georgia strategy in the Crimea by distributing Russian passports. The message is clear. Russia will do as it pleases.
I believe the most potent western response to Russia is to stay united and firm by providing immediate material and political support. If Moscow is trying to overthrow our government using its lethal tools, let us resist with democratic tools that have sustained more than 60 years of Euro-Atlantic peace. Backing Georgia with Europe’s political and financial institutions is a powerful response. Regrettably, this story is no longer about my small country, but the west’s ability to stand its ground to defend a principled approach to international security and keep the map of Europe intact.
The writer is president of Georgia