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A Partner and an Adversary

Impose sanctions or not? Europe is clearly hesitating, seemingly frightened by its own potential daring. And, as always, when the troubling spirit of appeasement and fear is in the air, Europe is looking for any plausible reason to do nothing at all.

We keep hearing, for example, that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is an unpredictable, even irresponsible and dangerous character. Who's being made fun of here? How can anyone say these things when looking at the man Saakashvili is up against, Vladimir Putin, who has, among other exploits, razed Grozny, wiped out a fifth of the population of Chechnya, allied himself with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rearmed Syria, and also decided--just like that, one fine day--to resume flights of strategic bombers armed with nuclear payloads? Now that is irresponsible. That is the definition of an unpredictable character. To characterize as dangerous the president of a small nation who dares to resist such a man, while giving a pass to the ex-KGB official who now specializes in mass murder; to show no mercy to the weaker side, while coming up with any number of excuses for the stronger one, which nearly every day gives the West the finger: That is indeed a singular notion of power relations and fairness.

People say, "We knew this war was going to happen. We should have foreseen it and prevented it." That's true. But what exactly did we know was going to happen? And once again, how dare reverse the roles in this way? On one side there is the Georgian whose only mistake may have been to overestimate our willingness to support him. On the other is the Russian who is pursuing the program he laid out in April 2005, when, in an address to the Federal Assembly, he said the collapse of the Soviet Union had been "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." Yes, you read that correctly: the greatest catastrophe. Greater than the world wars. Greater than Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Cambodia or Rwanda.

If we must choose a date, it was then that a new era began in our relationship with Russia. It was at that moment, when those terrible words were uttered, that we should have been alerted to the early warning signs of a new Cold War. We should not fail to recognize this, nor to fixate on Georgia's possible tactical error while overlooking Russia's strategic plan. We should not overlook, in other words, Putin's desire to undo the "catastrophe" of the transition to democracy by a part of the former Soviet empire--which is clearly his way of thumbing his nose at the rest of the world.

People say, "The mistake, the real mistake, was to taunt the Russian bear by bringing up Georgia's entry into NATO; why couldn't Georgia be satisfied with a nice little partnership with the European Union?" What nerve! And what an expression of bad faith! The truth is that if Georgia asked to enter NATO, it was only because we, the Europeans, had slammed the door to the European Union in its face. The sad reality is that even if a number of us, including my friend and fellow writer Andre Glucksmann, spoke in favor of Georgia's joining NATO, the young Ukrainian and Georgian democracies were later told that this would not be appropriate, the moment was not quite right, the expansion of NATO would be seen as too rapid and difficult to accept, and so forth. To overlook this shameless ditching of Georgia, to close our eyes to it, to criticize Saakashvili for making a choice that we quietly but firmly pushed, is to add insult to injury and flippancy to cowardice.

In the end, people say, "But even if we admit that they are right, what can we do about it? What great country wants to go and die for Tbilisi?" The truth is that it is not about dying, but about being firm and conditioning our relationship with Russia on its minimal respect for the rules in its dealings with its neighbors. And the truth is that in this particular situation, it is not only about those neighbors but about us, we Europeans. Why? Because what is at stake are Europe's energy needs. If Georgia holds its ground and retains its sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline will remain an alternative to Russia's Gazprom and its partners. But if Georgia gives in and returns to the post-Soviet bosom, Russia's hand will be at the switch, leaving the French, Germans and other Europeans almost entirely dependent on it for their heat. Only by openly acknowledging the possibility of blackmail or an interruption in oil or gas supplies can we be realistic and pragmatic. By closing our eyes--by haggling over Georgia's future, when its survival is necessary for our own prosperity and, indirectly, for our democracy--now that's what is unrealistic, impractical and truly irresponsible.

That Russia is a great country, no one can deny. That it is inevitably a partner is obvious. But a partner can sometimes be an adversary. And maintaining normal relations with Russia does not exclude speaking clearly to it about truth and principles.

Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism, will be published in September by Random House. This piece was translated from the French by Sara Sugihara.