TBILISI – Given the tremendous damage that Russia has inflicted on Georgia, it is easy to conclude that the Kremlin has achieved its objectives. But, so far, Russia has failed in its real goal – getting rid of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-democracy, pro-American president.
To be sure, Russia has tightened its control of the separatist enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It shattered the Georgian military, grievously damaged Georgia’s economy, and stirred up discord within the Western alliance. For three years, it has tried every conceivable tactic to bring Saakashvili down – fomenting a domestic uprising, imposing an economic blockade, beefing up its forces in the enclaves, and finally a war. Yet Georgia’s president remains in power.
Here in Tbilisi, tension is understandably high. Russian tanks are less than 25 miles away, and the wheat fields along the main road to Gori were ablaze, set on fire by Russian troops, as I drove through Russian checkpoints to get to that deserted, occupied city. (Most memorable sight: drunken Russian soldiers in stolen Georgian uniforms – “because they are better than ours.”)
Russia’s invasion of Georgia has reshaped the strategic landscape. But, as the West debates how to “punish Russia,” it is vital to remember that the main front is still in Georgia. Talk about taking away the 2014 Winter Olympics or ejecting Russia from the G-8 may (or may not) have some effect on the Kremlin, but the most important thing the West can do now is strengthen the government in Tbilisi. The equation is simple: if Saakashvili survives, Vladimir Putin loses.