Russian troops entering South Ossetia last year after a Georgian offensive to retake the secessionist territory was repulsed by Russia.
The Russia-Georgia War in August 2008 has seriously exacerbated Russia's already damaged relationships with the West. If the Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, had won last November's election in the United States, the two countries might have moved to the next level of confrontation -- possibly of a military nature.
Few people in the U.S. political class have been more ardent in advocating U.S. ties with the small Georgia at the expense of relations with Russia. Some of McCain's advisers are also known to have worked as paid lobbyists for Georgia's membership in NATO. Clearly they are not concerned that, had Georgia been a member of the alliance when the violence erupted in South Ossetia, the United States would have been in a state of war with Russia.
The economic crisis shifted public attention away from other issues of international politics and assisted candidate Barack Obama in focusing his presidential campaign on domestic recovery. However, a confrontation between the United States and Russia over the Caucasus may still be in the offing.
The last Russia-West military confrontation in the region took place about 150 years ago as an escalation of a conflict over the holy places and the rights of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire. In response to the Turkish Sultan's decision to grant additional rights to its Catholic subjects, Tsar Nicholas I invoked existing treaties with Turkey and demanded that the rights of millions of Orthodox also be recognized. When his mission to Constantinople failed, the Russian emperor raised the stakes by occupying Moldavia and Walachia, Turkish territories in the Balkans.
From that point, events quickly progressed to the course of what has become known as the Crimean War. Partly out of fear that Nicholas was aiming to dismantle the Ottoman Empire and strengthen his already powerful position in Europe, Britain and France insisted on Russia's withdrawal and positioned their fleets to pass through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. Austria disappointed Nicholas by participating in the war on the Turkish side.
Cooperation, Not Competition
Last year Russia again demonstrated its readiness to protect those who have historically gravitated to it. The Kremlin intervened in what it views as Georgia's use of force against one of its rebellious provinces. Russia then recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and extended them stronger military protection.
Western powers have exerted pressure on Russia in a bid to change the Kremlin's course. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compared Russia's role in the war in the Caucasus with the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Vice President Dick Cheney vowed to punish Russia for its "aggression." Several NATO vessels entered the Black Sea in the wake of the fighting, officially to distribute humanitarian aid, but in reality to intimidate Russia.
Alarmed at Russia's "neo-imperialism," the United States and European powers have continued to demand that Russia withdraw from Georgian territories. But the Kremlin has remained unmoved by Western rhetoric.
Although Obama's efforts to "reset" relations with Russia have been encouraging and although Georgia is entering a period of political change, the structural conditions for a great power confrontation in the Caucasus remain in place. The Crimean War became possible because Russia could not defend the rights of its coreligionists without being perceived as a revisionist power.
Today the European balance of power remains equally fragile. Russia cannot neglect those who turn to it for protection from state violence. Nor can the Kremlin ignore its own interests that have been jeopardized by NATO expansion and efforts to divert flows of Caspian energy away from Russian territory.
In addition, many in the West continue to share the Russophobic attitude of British War Secretary Lord Palmerston [the same minister who once said that Britain has only permanent interests, not permanent allies] by viewing Russia's weakness as essential for asserting U.S. and European interests in the region. Finally, the Caucasus has become heavily militarized and exposed to the use of force by various state and nonstate actors. To this day, Georgia has refused to sign an agreement on the renunciation of force with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The development of events in the direction of another Crimean war is therefore yet to be averted. It is time to learn lessons from the Russia-Georgia conflict by transforming the existing system of security in Europe and Eurasia.
Elements of a new system should include the mutual renunciation of force as a method for solving separatist disputes, a moratorium on the expansion of NATO, and a comprehensive energy agreement among major powers that allows for the cooperative, rather than competitive, exploitation of existing transportation routes.
Andrei Tsygankov is a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. He is the author of the newly released book Russophobia: Anti-Russian Lobby and American Foreign Policy (Macmillian). This article was originally published by RFE/RL and is republished here with the author's permission.