Against its best intentions, the United States is pushing the Kremlin to take the harshest possible steps in defense of its perceived interests. The recent crisis in the Caucasus may be a prelude to a series of other crises in the former Soviet region.
Since the 1990s, the U.S. idea of cooperating with Russia was to have it as a dependent partner that creates no problems for the execution of U.S. grand plans in the world. While lecturing Russia about importance of abandoning "19th-century geopolitical thinking," the United States waged war in the Balkans, initiated two rounds of NATO expansion, withdrew from the ABM treaty, established a military presence in Central Asia, invaded Iraq, and announced plans to deploy elements of ballistic-missile defense in Eastern Europe. In addition, the Western media increasingly portrayed Russia as a potential enemy, and groups with anti-Russian preferences called on Washington to revoke Russia's membership in the G8, ban private investments, and recognize the independence of secessionist territories like Chechnya.
In early 2007, the Kremlin warned that such actions were unacceptable and that Russia intended to pursue a more assertive course in relations with the United States. The warning provoked a storm of negative commentaries in the West, yet was largely dismissed as a bluff -- after all, the Kremlin had been warning about the "serious consequences" of ignoring Russia's interests for the preceding 10 years.
The Kremlin, however, was determined to stop NATO's expansion and prevent the incorporation of states like Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance by all means available. After the recognition of Kosovo's independence and the NATO summit in Bucharest in April, Russia strengthened its ties with Georgia's separatist territories and indicated its readiness to go to war if provoked by Tbilisi. On August 26, the Kremlin recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in order to protect Russia's interests in the Caucasus. These interests include supporting Russian citizens abroad and preventing a military build-up on Russia's southern border. Georgia may eventually join NATO, but only at the expense of its territorial integrity and probably not with the humiliated Mikheil Saakashvili in charge.
Events are developing in a direction similar to what happened after World War II, when the two sides found themselves locked in a race to secure Europe on their own terms. Having made an enormous sacrifice in defeating the Nazi regime, Moscow felt vindicated in demanding the recognition of its newly acquired status and securing the "fruits of victory." The United States and Britain, however, were fearful of Soviet ambitions and soon pushed through their own plan for pacifying the continent.
Today Russia again is prepared to act unilaterally to stop what it views as U.S. unilateralism in the former Soviet region. And some in Moscow are tempted to provoke a much greater confrontation with Western states.
Although the Cold War is not a perfect analogy for describing the contemporary situation -- not with growing economic interdependence and the lack of an ideological dimension -- Russia and the West have demonstrated a growing potential for confrontation. Just as was the case when the Berlin Wall divided them, the two sides now may find themselves teetering on the verge of war in areas where their perceived security interests clash.
For example, Western states have recently indicated their support for Georgia, and several NATO vessels have entered the Black Sea -- officially to distribute a humanitarian aid, but in reality to intimidate Russia. With the latter's determination to secure its "fruits of victory" in Georgia, the former Soviet region may became a cordon sanitaire separating hostile powers. If Western leaders continue to push for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine by offering them Membership Action Plans (MAPs), confrontation with Russia is sure to escalate.
However, Russia is not an enemy of the West, which has historically established itself as Russia's "significant other." Russia's foreign policy is not expansionist and anti-Western; it is a response to policies based on ignoring Russia. It is possible that Russia did not advance on to the final defeat of Saakashvili's militaristic regime because the Kremlin anticipated a harsh reaction from the West.
Russia has demonstrated that it can play by the old geopolitical rules. But historically -- when progressive leaders are in power -- it has also been prepared to initiate new ideas and pursue cooperation with Western states.
But the West also has a role to play. Rather than lecturing Russia on how to be a good citizen of the world, the West should move the security agenda beyond NATO with new proposals for joint security. It is time for new leadership and thinking outside the old geopolitical discourse, and it is time for the West to recognize the link between its actions in the Balkans and instability in the Caucasus. Western states must accept that they have ignored Russia for too long and propose a constructive international agenda to remedy this miscalculation.Andrei Tsygankov is a professor of political science and international relations at San Francisco State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here