Sergey Lavrov on Why Russia Moved into Georgia

This month Georgia's Saakashvili chose to achieve his political vision through violence.

It has become fashionable to view Russia's involvement in South Ossetia through the prism of the cold war, with the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as the blueprint. But such interpretations are historical folly. They ignore the recent history of the region. They ignore the great strides Russia has made since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. And they ignore the most basic fact of the current situation: that under cover of night, on Aug. 8, Georgia launched a military attack that killed hundreds of peacekeepers and civilians, creating a humanitarian disaster that led to an exodus of more than 30,000 refugees.

Let us be clear: Russia's involvement in South Ossetia is not about ideology. Nor is it about regime change in Georgia. Least of all is it about re-establishing the boundaries of the U.S.S.R. It is about restoring a fragile peace.

After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Georgia's new leadership announced that "Georgia is for Georgians," ended regional autonomy inside Georgia and moved military forces to take Tskhinvali and Sukhumi. After a bloody war, the Georgian Army was ousted from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia helped mediate a ceasefire. In 1992, Russia and Georgia created a legal framework for stability in the South Caucasus, including joint peacekeeping operations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe endorsed these efforts and sent observers to both regions. Conflict-settlement mechanisms had the consent and participation of all parties—including Georgia.

But since coming to power in 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has sought to undermine this process and assert control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He has done this despite the wishes of the citizens of these regions, who remember the bloodshed of the early 1990s. This month Saakashvili chose to achieve his political vision through violence. That the Georgian military gave the operation the chilling code name "Clear Field" reveals Saakashvili's true objectives. The code name clearly smells of genocide.

When Georgian peacekeepers opened fire on their Russian colleagues, we had no choice but to respond. In violation of every agreement, Georgian forces rampaged through South Ossetia in a frenzy of killing, burning and destruction. Saakashvili must be called to account for these crimes. Our response has been targeted, proportionate and legitimate. On Aug. 9, Russian troops were sent to reinforce the remaining Russian peacekeepers and to protect the civilian population.

Our objective was simple: stop the killing and prevent it from recurring. These actions are entirely consistent with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter on the right of self-defense. The Russian side never targeted civilians or civil facilities. Our purpose was to protect all people in the region by disarming Georgian forces and demilitarizing the areas used to launch attacks against South Ossetia.

It is now widely known that Georgian forces around Gori continued to fire on South Ossetians and Russian units, even after Saakashvili signed a ceasefire. Operations ended on Aug. 12, but the situation continued to be extremely dangerous. To give but one example: the Georgian Army covered its retreat with booby traps and smart mines. We also received reports of looting, score-settling and harassment in the power vacuum left by fleeing Georgian authorities.

This, however, is not what Georgia wants the world to believe. Propaganda is a powerful weapon. Realizing that Operation Clear Field had failed, Georgian officials frantically assumed the role of the victim. They claimed Russian troops had leveled Gori and were moving on Tbilisi. Saakashvili declared he had personally seen Russian planes bomb a local market (the European ministers who accompanied him to Gori failed to notice the attack). Apartment blocks, civil infrastructure and a stadium had been destroyed by cluster bombs, Saakashvili said. None of this was true. This was a blatant attempt to cover up the fact that Georgia itself had been the aggressor.

What can one say about Saakashvili's repeated assertions that Tskhinvali was destroyed not by the Georgians but by the Russian forces after they had taken the city? George Orwell's Ministry of Truth could not have invented such a story. On Aug. 14, Russian troops began restoring order to Gori. Russian units helped reintroduce water and electricity supplies and facilitated the re-entry of Georgian police. They ensured that huge, unprotected arsenals of weaponry nearby presented no danger to the civilian population.

Those who long for the cold war may wish to compare Russia's defense of its peacekeepers and innocent civilians to Soviet aggression of the last century. But Czech President Vaclav Klaus put it well last week when he rejected the comparison to Czechoslovakia in 1968: "Czechoslovakia did not attack the Subcarpathian Rus; the invasion was not a reaction to our attack." The cold war is long over, the Soviet Union a receding memory. As the United States well knows, a nation must defend its people when they are attacked. No nation that respects itself can do less.