The Wolf that Ate Georgia

FLORENCE –In Phaedrus’s well-known fable of the wolf and the lamb, the wolf easily could have eaten the lamb without a word, but prefers to set out his “reasons.” First, he scolds the lamb because he is muddying his drinking water (even though the wolf was upstream). Then he argues that last year the lamb had called him bad names (but the lamb was only six months old). The wolf then snarls that if it was not the lamb, it was his father; after that, he immediately moves into action.

The wolf’s “justifications” for his evil action were a luxury that he allowed himself. At present, the United Nations Charter legally binds wolf-states – that is, the Great Powers – to offer justifications for their use of armed violence. This is all the more necessary for the Security Council’s five permanent members, because, aside from condemnation by public opinion, no sanctions are available against them for any serious breach of the Charter.

Russia has set forth various reasons to justify its armed intervention in Georgia, where the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are nonetheless under Georgian sovereignty. Russia argues that its invasion was aimed at 1) stopping Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetians; 2) ending ethnic cleansing, genocide, and war crimes committed by Georgia there; 3) protecting Russian nationals; and 4) defending South Ossetians on the basis of the peace-keeping agreement signed by Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze in 1992.

None of these legal grounds holds water. By sending its troops to South Ossetia, Georgia no doubt was politically reckless, but it did not breach any international rule, however nominal its sovereignty may be. Nor do genocide or ethnic cleansing seem to have occurred; if war crimes were perpetrated, they do not justify a military invasion. Moreover, South Ossetians have Russian nationality only because Russia recently bestowed it on them unilaterally. Finally, the 1992 agreement authorizes only monitoring of internal tensions, not massive use of military force.