- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2008

‘AIR OF FREEDOM’

Georgia’s ambassador to the United States looked over the audience of more than 200 guests Monday at the Heritage Foundation and admitted that he never thought he would be addressing a Washington forum about a Russian invasion of his country.

However, Ambassador Vasil Sikharulidze added, Moscow miscalculated if it thought armed force would deter Georgia from trying to establish ties with the European Union and NATO.

“The Georgian people are more determined than ever to join the free world, to join NATO, to breathe the air of freedom,” he said.

“The Russian invasion was an attack against the values we all cherish,” he added.

Mr. Sikharulidze repeated many of the charges his government has made against Russian forces, which invaded Georgia after Georgian troops moved against the Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia. Russia also supports an independence movement in a second Georgian province, Abkhazia. Russia says it invaded to protect ethnic Russians and Ossetians.

“This is a simple story,” Mr. Sikharulidze said, comparing the Russian action to the Nazis invading Europe in the 1930s and the Soviets crushing a pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

“This is about what Russia intends to do to Europe. … This is no longer just about us. It is about you.”

The Georgians see the Russian invasion as an attempt by Moscow to regain the superpower status lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. They say Russia will use military force or energy pressure to reassert influence over Georgia, Ukraine and other nations bordering Russia that flirt too closely with the West.

Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia’s minister for reintegration and its chief negotiator with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, accused Russia of blocking international observers and aid because it is “hiding” the destruction its army spread beyond the Ossetian borders into undisputed Georgian territory.

“Georgia has been demanding international access,” he said in a telephone link from Georgia to the conservative think tank in Washington. “The Russians have a lot to hide. … Russia is committing crimes in South Ossetia.”

Another speaker at the forum, Stephen Blank, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, said Russia’s lightning response to Georgia’s initial assault on South Ossetian separatist militias showed the strength and modernizations of Moscow’s military. He noted the army’s “strategic surprise” and rapid deployment and Moscow’s ability to airlift weapons and supplies.

However, he added, Russia’s response also showed it was a “planned provocation.”

“Russia is not the aggrieved party, but the aggressor,” he said.

Mr. Blank added that the confrontation showed the Georgian army was not prepared for “full-scaled conflict” and faulted the “recklessness” of its original attack.

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