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« What reviving Cold War will end up costing us | Main | What Beijing Olympics will tell us about our world »
Sunday
Aug172008

Response to Georgia conflict: firm but moderate

Russia's military incursion into Georgia and its two breakaway regions begs the usual "who started this?" questions.

America's response must be firm but likewise avoid mindlessly regurgitating Cold War dynamics with Moscow, an overreaction we can't afford right now.

Georgia miscalculated both Russia's response to its attempt to militarily subdue South Ossetia and the West's willingness to rescue it once Moscow piled on. The fact that tiny Georgia's 2,000 troops in Iraq - now pulled out - represented the third-largest allied contribution there tells you how thinned-out our coalition has become and how desperate Georgia was to win our support.

By capitalizing on Georgia's mistake, Vladimir Putin sends a strong signal to both the region and the West that Russia's decades-long strategic retreat has ended.

Having pulled out of Third World client states starting in the 1980s, then dissolving the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, Moscow effectively ceded East Central Europe, the Balkans and the Baltics to the West, as well as Central Asia to rising China.

But, when traditional buffer state Ukraine, along with Georgia, recently sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Moscow's autocrats surely began looking for the right scenario to flex their nation's military muscles in a manner befitting a rising great power. Unwitting Georgia walked right into that punch.

Putin likewise wanted to spook Azerbaijan, a small oil-rich neighbor of Georgia that has sought to avoid Russia's monopolistic schemes by running some of its oil exports through pipelines traversing Georgia's southern region.

That Southern Economic Corridor, as it is known, represents Azerbaijan's - and possibly Central Asia's - opportunity to cash in on high oil prices while forging a path independent from Moscow.

Does this show of force mean the old big bad Russian bear is back?

It certainly means Moscow is done quietly acquiescing to perceived security encroachments in its southern "near abroad." But since NATO rejected Georgia's membership bid, that region probably remains a bridge too far for the West's security guarantees anyway.

As the European Union begins to look southward to North Africa and its dreams of a Mediterranean integration project, we may have seen the end to Europe's historic eastward expansion - as in, this far but no farther.

With the United States effectively tied down strategically in southwest Asia for the foreseeable future, that leaves only regional rising great power Turkey to apply any significant local counter-pressure to Russia's expanding influence.

Reflecting this, Ankara quickly proposed a new Caucasus Union that would pull in Moscow while providing the region's smaller states some diplomatic top cover.

That's a sharp move on Turkey's part, and Washington should support it. Now is not the time to start kicking Russia out of organizations like the G-8 or denying it membership in the World Trade Organization, because the more economic connectivity Moscow has with the West, the faster Western - and Eastern - investors can make their displeasure known. Nothing cures unilateral militarism like a market correction.

The U.S. should likewise shelve its plans in Eastern Europe for a missile defense shield that's purportedly aimed at Iran but is interpreted by Moscow and Beijing as America's attempt to revise the East-West correlation of nuclear forces. Stoking Putin's KGB-trained paranoia here serves no useful purpose.

Better to internationalize the Georgian solution and encourage further energy workarounds that thwart Moscow's regional designs.

Russia has searched for a post-Soviet identity since that empire's stunningly sudden collapse two decades ago. For now, Moscow is nothing more than an immature energy conglomerate masquerading as a government. Learning what he did from the Bush administration's lengthy - and now exhausted - bout of unilateralism, Putin confuses the power of supply with the power of demand, thinking he holds all the cards.

He's wrong.

Resurrecting Cold War memes is easy, but it's also unimaginative. We'll need a more sophisticated grand strategy for a world now populated with numerous rising great powers.

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