Russian invasion, just in time for summer

During two decades in the newspaper business, I developed a peculiar measuring rod for political, economic and international events: hold on to your hats on Fridays, August, holidays and election years — in that order. That’s when the “bad guys” do their dirty work.

In my early years at The Baltimore Sun in the 1960s, I noticed that power-ful utilities — certainly “bad guys” to a journalist reared on H.L. Mencken — announced their rate increases on Friday afternoon. Early enough to hit the Saturday paper, the least read of the week. By Monday, their decisions, while subject to approval, were virtu-ally a fait accompli.

Then in 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, during a heated U.S. election cam-paign during the Vietnam war. Look-ing back, Soviet troops smashed the Hungarian revolution two days before the 1956 U.S. presidential election.

I really didn’t think much of these coincidences for a while. And then the former Soviet Union invaded Af-ghanistan. The time? Christmas eve, 1979. Saddam Hussein, of course, in-vaded Kuwait in August 1990, vaca-tion time in the West.

My old theory came to mind two weeks ago when Russia invaded Georgia with overwhelming force — after, to be accurate, Georgia’s gov-ernment made a reckless effort to reassert control of two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The date: a Friday, in August, of an election year.

Dust-ups over these small regions of Georgia have been taking place every August for years. Tensions had been building this year more sharply than normal. But this time, the Rus-sians, perhaps seeing the U.S. preoc-cupied and deeply committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, lashed back with what was clearly premeditated and brutal force, going far into Georgia.

That the Russian advance clearly exploited the lame-duck status of an ineffective American president is beside the point. Far more important now is for the Bush administration and its key allies in Europe — those big countries Donald Rumsfeld de-rided as “old Europe” — to get the right response to a clear case of ag-gression.

Comparisons to the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland at the start of World War II are overreaching. Vla-dimir Putin has been itching to reas-sert Russian power in the old Soviet space for years, and several develop-ments, including careless Bush sup-port for Georgia’s NATO aspirations, Russia’s new-found economic muscle, and a loose cannon of a Georgian leader, offered a ripe opportunity.

Now that a measure of calm has been restored, the critical questions are two, one immediate, the other long-term. The first: What kind of peacekeeping force will be acceptable to all parties and work? The second: How effectively will the West respond to Russia’s bullying?

The inability to establish an inter-national peacekeeping force was hard enough before this month. Despite its weakness in the 1990s, Russia main-tained troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They are unlikely to budge now. Just getting them out of Georgia will be progress.

The long-term response will take time to materialize. It must be framed against a new reality, one that recog-nizes renewed Russian influence. A new containment strategy will be needed — part engagement and part tough, clear lines based on interna-tional behavior.

Whatever strategy is put together, it will require unity among the United States, France, Germany, Britain and others. Efforts to integrate Russia into the West have clearly failed, for many complex reasons — from the West’s half-measures to Russian dis-trust and Putin’s autocratic course.

Russia is needed in the interna-tional community — to deal with Iran, to help work against terrorism and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and myriad other challenges. At the same time, Russian leaders need to know that attacks such as that against Georgia will not be tolerated, that they risk isolation from the Euro-Atlantic community.

How? The levers are available de-spite Russia’s vast energy resources. Given the Putin regime’s thuggish approach to many companies that don’t toe the Kremlin line, pressure against foreign investment in Russia would be appropriate — if Western banks and companies can get their own houses in order. Certainly, Rus-sia’s membership in the G-8 should be up for review. Blair Ruble, a leading expert on Russia, notes: “Either the G-8 is about democracy — in which case Russia should not be a member — or it is about economics, in which case China should be. Either way, Russia loses a bit.”

How the allies handle Russian pressures against Ukraine, a more legitimate candidate for NATO mem-bership, will be another tough test. The 2014 winter Olympics in Russia? Not a good idea to change now — though China’s leaders can’t be too happy about a major distraction from their spectacular show this month.

It will take time, unity and tough, steadfast diplomacy. In the meantime, don’t forget: August is not over, and it’s still an election year.

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign cor-respondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at