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Russia-Georgia Conflict Has Broad Consequences

Russia's military offensive to assert authority over Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions is having profound international repercussions and threatens to severely damage relations between Washington and Moscow.

Russia's military offensive to seize South Ossetia and Abkhazia is having major international repercussions. The two regions declared independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, but have failed to gain international recognition. While Russia and Georgia blame each other for starting the hostilities, Russia's seizure of the breakaway territories and its drive further into Georgia is seen by many senior officials in Europe and the United States as an act of aggression against a democratic country.

President Bush has expressed U.S. support for Georgia and warned Moscow of the consequences of not withdrawing its forces. "Russia's ongoing action raises serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century. The United States has supported these efforts," said Mr. Bush. "Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions. To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis."

Why Move Now?

Russia experts are offering various interpretations for the Kremlin's military actions. Ariel Cohen of The Heritage Foundation says Moscow is reacting to the West's embrace of Georgia and its democratically-elected president -- Mikheil Saakashvili.

"Russia is using its military force to rebuild its sphere of influence. Sphere of influence, of course, is a 19th century notion. Russia is still thinking in 19th century terms and wants to exercise its military power to rebuild this sphere of influence," says Cohen. "They see it as an old Russian empire sphere of influence or, if you want, the territory of the old Soviet Union. Maybe with the exception of the Baltics, that's what they want to grab. And Ukraine is becoming the next domino."

Georgia, Ukraine and other independent states were once part of the now-defunct Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Moscow also tightly controlled the countries of Eastern Europe. It resorted to military force in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush independence movements.

Today, some analysts say that Russia -- under its powerful former President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- may be heading in a similar direction. Many analysts say Mr. Putin, who governed Russia from 2000 until earlier this year, is running the country given his dominant role in making decisions during this crisis, overshadowing his hand-picked successor -- Dmitri Medvedev.

Ruth Wedgwood, an international law expert at The Johns Hopkins University, says Russia has been using its vast energy resources and growing economic power to exert influence over Eastern Europe and that Moscow's incursion into Georgia is a major step. "Their clear intent to have an influence, more than economic, kind of economic and political, in Central Europe, now is superseded, in my mind, by this quasi-1956 Hungarian style-threat. That if you don't abide by certain, unwritten blue lines [i.e, limits] we'll come into you," says Wedgwood. "So I see it as very ominous. And Russia, if it wants to re-establish any reputation as a responsible power in Europe, has to withdraw quickly, withdraw completely."

Western Options

Many analysts say the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have limited options to change the situation on the ground in Georgia. President Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have made clear that Moscow's participation in the Group of Eight industrial democracies and other international forums is in jeopardy.

In urging Moscow to end its military operations, Rice had harsh words for Russia. "This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed," said Rice.

Yet some experts say the West is limited in pressuring Moscow, because it still needs Russian cooperation to resolve thorny international issues such as curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Charles Kupchan served on the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration and is now with the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington. "The U.S. needs Russia on stopping Iran's nuclear program; the U.S. needs Russia dealing with energy prices and supply; the U.S. needs Russia in Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process. So it seems to me one needs more proof that Russia is returning to its imperial ways before one puts on ice [i.e., puts on hold] such an important agenda in other parts of the world."

However, U.S. officials warn that East-West relations could suffer for years if Russian military forces do not retreat from Georgia.