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After Ossetia, Some Things Change And Some Remain The Same

Russia's neighbors look on nervously.
Russia's neighbors look on nervously.
Russia's military intervention in Georgia this past week has led to two diametrically opposed predictions about what that action will mean for the future of the international system.

One set, reflecting genuine outrage at Moscow's actions against Georgia and convinced that they reflect a habit of mind in the Russian capital that must be countered, suggests that from now on everything will -- or at least should be -- different and that the West will -- or at least should -- form up again in a united front and contain Russia until it changes its ways.

The other set, one based on the reality that Western countries and the Russian Federation, however much they may disagree on Georgia or anything else, have numerous common interests -- counterterrorism, nonproliferation, economic development, and others -- argues that Russian intervention in Georgia will prove to be little more than a bump in the road and that, in the famous image of birds in a tree, many will rise because of the sound of guns but most of them are likely to settle back down on the same branches once the noise fades.

In fact, each of these perspectives captures something important, even while ignoring other things that may prove equally significant. Because of what Russia has done in Georgia, the future is not going to be just like the past, but regardless of what has taken place and continues to take place in that Caucasus republic, the future is not going to be entirely different either. Any accurate assessment must reflect both the anger and emotions that inform the first set of predictions and the sometimes bloodless and values-free realpolitik that defines the second.

This combination of change and continuity is very much on display in three concentric circles around Georgia: first, in the former Soviet republics of which Georgia is a part; second, in the Russian Federation itself; and third, in Russia's place in the broader international system -- particularly its relations with Europe and the United States.

If the first victim of this war like of all wars was the truth, the second victim was Russia's unquestioned dominance over the post-Soviet space. Not only has Georgia announced it is leaving the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an action Ukraine is likely to take as well. Russia's actions have horrified the Baltic countries, which have joined with Poland in taking some of the most effective actions to call attention to Russia's misbehavior. The Georgia incursion even prompted Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to back away from Moscow and explore the possibilities of new contacts with Western governments.

Consequently, even if the CIS survives -- and it is likely to in some form or another -- it will not be the institution it was, because Moscow has demonstrated something that many in the region have not wanted to face: the Kremlin does not believe the rules that apply to others apply to itself. Consequently, some, if not all, of the CIS countries will take measures, calling them "a balanced foreign policy" or whatever, to defend themselves as best they can from Russian pressure.

At the same time, and as evidence of the very impossibility of former Estonian President Lennart Meri's famous observation that he would rather have Canada for a neighbor, these countries are not about to move geographically. Because of that and the cultural ties that are embedded in geography, Russia will continue to have certain advantages by virtue of its size and location that these countries will not be able to ignore in their foreign-policy calculations. They will have to find ways to work with Russia because it is unlikely any of them, including the Baltic countries, will ever see their borders with the Russian Federation become like a Fulda Gap in Germany where NATO forces stood posed to block a Warsaw Pact thrust for so many years.

Domestic Alarm

The second circle in which the Georgian events are changing some things while leaving others in place is inside the Russian Federation. On the one hand, the events in Georgia are contributing to a further destabilization of the North Caucasus and thus creating another security challenge for Moscow, one that almost certainly will prove far more intractable and threatening than even NATO membership for Georgia could possibly mean.

And on the other, the outrageous statements of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin about Georgia and the Georgians, statements repeated and amplified by the Moscow media and by extreme Russian nationalists, have sparked an outburst of the worst kind of extremist and xenophobic nationalism among many ethnic Russians, a nationalism that is leading to attacks against ethnic Georgians and other "aliens" in the Russian Federation and to statements that from now on Russia will act as it likes regardless of what anyone else thinks.

But both individually and separately, these developments are likely to be corrected in the coming weeks and months. Even Putin has recognized, or at least said, that Moscow cannot bring peace and stability to the Caucasus by arms alone. Many Russian politicians understand that allowing xenophobic Russian nationalism to grow will lead to a reaction among the quarter of the population that is not ethnic Russian and render the country ungovernable except at a level of coercion that would preclude the economic development its elite so passionately wants.

And that is a more important factor than many now suspect. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the impact of Russia's actions in Georgia have had on the Russian stock market and the ruble exchange rate led some Russians to demand that Medvedev agree to the plan proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, even though many of the "siloviki" -- those in government with connections to the military and security organs -- clearly were unhappy to do so.

Not So Different Future

Russian actions in Georgia -- which violate the international rules of the game every bit as much as did the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 -- have generated new suspicions in Europe about the Russian bear, which they have never embraced but have wanted to cooperate with both because of energy supplies and to gain greater independence from the United States.

And these same actions have particularly infuriated Americans first and foremost because the United States under the last three presidents was so committed to integrating postcommunist Russia into the international system that Americans were willing to ignore some obvious continuities in Moscow's behavior. Moreover, Americans were miffed also and not unimportantly because Moscow could not have chosen a worse time to act from the point of view of its own interests. The United States is in the middle of a presidential campaign, and neither the incumbent administration -- which very much wants be to define its legacy -- nor either of the prospective candidates can afford to appear anything but tough as nails in response to any challenge.

But in the case of both Europe and the United States, these reactions are not likely to determine behavior for the long haul. Europe has simply become too dependent on Russian gas to be able to break with Moscow in any serious way, and the United States -- because of its commitments elsewhere in the war on terrorism -- lacks both the instruments to hold the Russians to account and the interest in doing so if Moscow, as can be expected, soon offers "help" on one or another issue Washington cares about.

Because these two sets of predictions are operating, the real question for the immediate future is what will be the amplitude of the swing of the pendulum between them. One can very much hope there will be a steep learning curve everywhere.

Russians must recognize that they have violated international law in Georgia and that their own interests at home and abroad require that they back down. The non-Russians need to insist -- and the Russians (and the West) need to recognize -- that the CIS was only a divorce court and that all of them need to find a place in the sun that includes the others but is not dominated by any one power. And finally, the Europeans and the Americans need to recognize that hoping for changes in Russia's approach to the world is admirable but that these won't happen if the West continues to defer to Russia's insistence that the rules that apply to others do not apply to it.

Given recent history, it is unlikely that all of those things will occur. But that too is evidence that the future will be different because of what Russia has done in Georgia -- but it will not be entirely different either immediately or for long.

Paul Goble, a longtime specialist on the former Soviet space, is director of research at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ADA or RFE/RL

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.