Russia’s military intervention in Georgia has provoked a storm of negative reactions in the United States and Europe. To most Americans—and apparently to spluttering Bush administration officials—Moscow’s actions came as an unpleasant surprise. Pundits and policy experts immediately began to speculate about the Kremlin’s motives in Georgia and beyond.

To Russophobes the answer is clear: the evil empire has been reborn and is on the march. They issued shrill warnings that Moscow’s dust-up with Georgia was just like the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Some even invoked the threadbare 1930s analogy, with Russia playing the role of Nazi Germany. According to that logic, Moscow’s actions had little to do with the obscure territorial disputes between Georgia and its secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rather, Russia cannot abide the proliferation of democratic, pro-Western governments in neighboring countries. If the United States and its NATO allies do not repel Moscow’s aggression in Georgia, hawks warn, Ukraine and the Baltic Republics will be the next targets.

The argument that Russia is a malignantly expansionist power is now common fare across the political spectrum. The perspective of the Washington Post and such Democratic luminaries as Madeleine Albright and Zbigniew Brzezinski is not substantially different from the views of neoconservatives such as William Kristol and Robert Kagan—or GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

Contrary to such alarmism, it is more likely that Russia’s strategic aims are modest, largely confined to its own neighborhood, and typical for a major power. Moscow’s actions also appear to be more defensive than offensive—a belated reaction to clumsy, arrogant policies that the United States and its NATO allies have pursued for more than a decade.

One key aspect of the Georgia conflict is that Russia’s position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is nothing new. Those regions, with Moscow’s backing, achieved political autonomy—actually, de facto independence—by defeating Georgian military forces in the months following the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Russian “peacekeepers” established a presence in both regions during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, not Vladimir Putin.

Moscow’s policy appears to include ethnic, security, and economic factors. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s relations with a newly independent Georgia were contentious. It was tempting for Russian leaders to exploit tensions between Tbilisi and ethnic groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to weaken what was fast emerging as a hostile neighboring state. It was also an easy target, since those tensions had existed for generations. Indeed, the inclusion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of Georgia was an arbitrary edict that the Soviet government made under Josef Stalin. (A similar decision that Moscow made under Nikita Khrushchev added the Russian-inhabited Crimea to Ukraine—another ethnic time bomb that bears watching.) Most Abkhazians and South Ossetians have never been happy being governed by Tbilisi.

Georgia’s periodic attempts to re-establish sovereignty over those regions created tensions and instability on Russia’s southern flank—developments that would ignite security concerns for any country.

Russian leaders are especially nervous about the prospect of turmoil in the Caucasus in light of the smoldering conflict in their own territory of Chechnya. Moscow had warned both current Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, not to disrupt the status quo. When Saakashvili ordered an artillery barrage on the South Ossetian capital in early August, Russian forces were ready—and probably eager —to teach Tbilisi a lesson.

Important economic considerations reinforce ethnic and security concerns. There has been speculation in the United States and Europe that Russia’s coercion of Georgia is part of a plot to gain control of the oil pipeline that runs from Baku in Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, going through Georgia and passing near Tbilisi. The pipeline power-grab thesis is probably too simplistic. But there is little doubt that Russia wants to gain more influence over the potentially vast oil riches of the Caspian Basin. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is a significant part of the policy mosaic. Once again, though, the motives may be as much defensive as offensive—an effort to counter the growing Western economic presence in that region.

Russia’s actions in Georgia are not much different from the typical conduct of other great powers—including the United States—in their neighborhoods. A few weeks before the onset of the fighting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that the notion of “spheres of influence” in world affairs was obsolete. That argument was either naïve or hypocritical. Certainly, Washington’s conduct in the Western Hemisphere suggests that U.S. officials have not abandoned their belief in an American sphere of influence. Since World War II, the United States has invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. Washington orchestrated a successful coup against the government of Guatemala and tried to do the same both to Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It is a bit much for American leaders to admonish the Russians not to molest small, hostile neighbors.

Moscow is also increasingly angry at the West’s repeated disdain for Russian policy preferences—indeed, core Russian interests—in Europe. The insensitivity of the United States and its allies was already apparent in the mid-1990s, with the effort to expand NATO by adding Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. That move violated assurances given to the Kremlin when Mikhail Gorbachev’s government agreed to the reunification of Germany and continued German membership in NATO. Secretary of State James Baker assured Russian officials that the alliance would not expand eastward from Germany.

Not content with that provocation, in 2004 the U.S. pushed through NATO’s incorporation of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, entities that had been part of the Soviet Union. And NATO expansion is not the only manifestation of contempt for Russia’s interests. So is Western policy in the Balkans, traditionally a key region for Moscow. In 1995, NATO forces intervened in Bosnia’s civil war to undermine the Serbs, Russia’s coreligionists and longstanding political allies. Then in 1999, the United States and its allies waged an air war against Serbia, ultimately wrenching away its province of Kosovo. They bypassed the UN Security Council to do so, thereby evading a Russian veto.

Although Russia’s political leaders fumed at such treatment, they could do little except issue meaningless complaints. The country was too weak, with both its economy and military in disarray. But that situation has changed. As a leading exporter of oil and natural gas, Russia has benefited enormously from the decade-long boom in the prices of commodities. With oil at $110 a barrel—to say nothing of the price earlier this year of $145 a barrel—the country is in a fundamentally different bargaining position than it was in the mid and late 1990s, when oil was mired in the $10 to $20 a barrel range. The Kremlin has also used some of the revenue from that boom to refurbish and modernize its military.

Today Russia is much stronger than it was in the 1990s, and Moscow has begun to push back. One indicator came earlier this year when Kremlin leaders warned that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine would cross a bright red line and not be tolerated. The vehemence of Moscow’s reaction was one factor that led France, Germany, and other key NATO members to oppose the U.S. lobbying effort.

But Washington remains tone deaf in its policy toward Russia. In addition to the campaign to admit Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, the Bush administration has made plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic a high priority. In response, Russia has warned Warsaw and Prague that it will target both countries for retaliation in the event of war.

Washington’s Balkan policy has also blundered ahead, dismissing Moscow’s objections. In February, the United States and its leading European allies again bypassed the UN Security Council (and Russia’s veto) to grant Kosovo independence. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned that such a step set a dangerous international precedent that would encourage secessionist movements around the world. America, he said, had “opened a Pandora’s box.” Ominously, he noted specifically that the Kosovo precedent would seem to apply to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

At least in part, Russia’s actions in Georgia amount to payback for the West’s refusal to respect even the most basic Russian interests and an emphatic reassertion of its sphere of influence. Moscow appears to want two things: pre-eminence in its own region and treatment by the United States and NATO as a serious power whose wishes must be respected. Using military force as it did in Georgia is a crude way to make those points, but they were made effectively. The Bush administration’s vocal support for Saakashvili proved to be devoid of substance. Moscow demonstrated that it could coerce a small U.S. ally on its border, and Washington’s response was impotent. The response of NATO and the European Union reflected the same reality. For all the verbal bluster of those organizations, the Europeans, cognizant of their dependence on Russia for energy supplies (among other considerations), do not want a hostile relationship with Moscow.

The Georgia episode underscores the limits of Washington’s deterrence capabilities, and it should send a warning about a dangerous defect in U.S. foreign policy. The reality is that the United States can do little to protect vulnerable client states in Russia’s neighborhood—unless Washington is willing to risk a military confrontation with nuclear implications. That remains true even for clients such as the Baltic states, which are formal members of NATO.

At the same time, Russia must be careful not to overplay its hand. That possibility arose in late August when Moscow sought an endorsement from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—the association of Russia, China, and the Central Asian republics—for military intervention in Georgia and the subsequent recognition of independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Much to the dismay of Russian officials, the SCO refused to give its imprimatur. Indeed, the SCO statement expressed the importance of respecting the territorial integrity of countries. That should not have come as a surprise to Moscow. Several of the Central Asian countries have their own secessionist problems and do not wish to see the Kosovo and South Ossetia precedents spread. Even more important, China vehemently opposes secessionism, given its problems with Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. The SCO summit was a test of will between Moscow and Beijing—and Russia lost.

That result illustrates the limits of Moscow’s power. Russia may be capable of establishing a modest sphere of influence along its perimeter, but it does not have the strength to reconstitute the Soviet empire—much less pose an expansionist threat to the heart of Europe as the USSR did during the Cold War. American opinion leaders need to curb their alarmism. Moscow’s conduct in Georgia may have been brutal, but it is not out of the norm for a great power to discipline an upstart small neighbor. There is no credible evidence that Moscow has massive expansionist impulses. And even if it did, Russia lacks the power to achieve such goals. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and it certainly is not the equivalent of Nazi Germany. U.S. policymakers need to take a deep breath, accept that Russia has returned to the ranks of major powers, and realize that Washington can no longer ignore, much less trample on, core Russian interests. The sooner they make that course correction, the better.   

__________________________________________

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.