- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

Angered by the arrest of four Russian military officers accused of espionage in Georgia last month, Moscow imposed sanctions and shut down air, rail and road transit to Georgia, which could cripple the small country’s economy. President Vladimir Putin’s reaction is a clear attempt to reassert Russia’s influence in post-Soviet Georgia. The Russian leader deflected the calls to end sanctions from the international community by asking the West to push for a “fundamental change” in the Georgian leadership’s “irresponsible” policies.

Russian officials regard the arrests as a provocation by President Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgian government. Clearly Moscow is chagrined by the increasing independence and pro-Western orientation of countries such as Georgia. A November referendum on independence in South Ossettia, one of two regions that separated from Georgia in the 1990s, may cause a further escalation in tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Georgia, for its part, is far from diplomatic in its dealings with its Eastern neighbor. Mr. Putin, who has publicly lamented the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is sensitive to claims that Russia has lost its superpower status, and Mr. Saakashvili has been more than willing to needle the Russian president in that respect. But the burden to act more responsibly is primarily on Russia, which the Georgian president rightly said wants “to see Georgia on its knees and scared.” Washington should also explain to Mr. Saakashvili the value of circumspection.

If the current sanctions are kept in place, Georgia intends to block Russia’s entrance to the World Trade Organization — an accession that Washington supports. Washington put diplomatic pressure on Mr. Saakashvili to turn the suspected spies over to Belgium, which currently heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, instead of putting them on trial in Georgia. By continuing to implement sanctions, however, Mr. Putin cut short any hope that U.S. diplomacy would temper the situation. Mr. Putin then warned President Bush away from backing Georgia.

Yet Washington has supported Georgia — and should continue to do so — and Mr. Putin understands that the United States opposes Russian intimidation of its democratic neighbors. In the end, both U.S. and Georgian interests are better served by making every effort to mend Georgia’s deteriorated relationship with its formidable neighbor.

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