Georgia, a tiny democratic outpost on Russia's southern flank, is packing a big message. The two nations are locked in a high-stakes political and economic standoff – one that reveals the limits of US and European influence on former Soviet turf.
The crisis began earlier this month when Georgia, known for its 2003 "Rose Revolution" and pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili, arrested four alleged Russian spies. The suspects were eventually released to Russia, but Moscow has responded with uncalled-for harshness: cutting off transportation and postal ties with the former Soviet state, deporting many Georgians living in Russia, and shutting down their businesses there.
The West might not pay much heed except that an escalation of tensions could have serious consequences – for Western access to a Caspian oil pipeline that runs through Georgia, for expanding Russian influence in its "near abroad," and for possible violence in the volatile Caucasus region.
Behind the standoff lies Georgia's desire to join NATO in 2008 and to bring back two small separatist regions that broke away in bloody wars in the post-Soviet early 1990s. Russian peacekeepers, serving under a UN mandate, are in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It's no secret that Moscow backs their drive for independence and would like them in its sphere. Nor does it want NATO's borders stretching across the Black Sea to Russia's back door.
The fear here is that any number of wrong moves – by Russian President Vladimir Putin or by Mr. Saakashvili – could trigger violence that would inflame the well-armed Caucasus region, and spark a series of ethnic secessions from countries on Russia's border.
Complicating all of this is the Western push for independence for Kosovo, the former Yugoslav province claimed by Russian ally Serbia. Mr. Putin sees that as justification for independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unsaid, but implied, would be independence for a host of other areas Russia wants back, or more tightly under its control: parts of Ukraine and Moldova, for instance, the long- disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and parts of central Asia.
Unless the US and Europe try seriously to address Russia's real fears about NATO encroachment, they may not – in the long run – be able to prevent Russian maneuvering to buttress its periphery. Putin knows he has the upper hand in the region. Much of the world might object to his strong-arm, antidemocratic tactics, but he's got most Russians solidly behind him, and his country is flush with energy profits. Politically, the West needs him to help solve the big-ticket crises of Iran and North Korea. And, economically, Western Europe depends on Russian oil and gas.
But in the shortterm, the West can help defuse Georgian-Russian tensions by pointing to the dangers of escalation and a potential war over Georgia's breakaways. Over the weekend, the US secretary of State called for "cooler heads to prevail." Saakashvili, who needlessly provoked the crisis, has wisely renounced any military or quick action to solve the separatist problem. Moscow would do well to find a face-saving way to back down.