Paradoxically, standing up to Moscow is not only the right thing to do in this crisis, but the best way to improve relations with Russia in the long term. For only a Russia that abandons its imperial agenda and respects its neighbors, irrespective of size, can be a true partner for the west. ~Svante Cornell

This is the sort of bizarre argument that interventionists are reduced to making, since the observations that the West has no vital interests in the north Caucasus and that the West doesn’t want to damage relations with Russia by backing Saakashvili’s reckless blunder are, to my surprise, quickly becoming the common ones that people across the spectrum are making.  With the exception of a few pundits and bloggers, there have been no calls for confrontation, and even the WSJ, your normally reliable guide to American Russophobic opinion, adopted a fairly mild tone in its editorial.  So we are treated to the claim that we must confront and deeply damage relations with Russia so that we can have good long-term relations with some future Russia that does not do any of the things that Moscow believes to be in its interests and within its rights in its near-abroad.  In other words, until Russia concedes to every Western demand and ceases pursuing what it considers its own interests, it will not be a suitable “partner” for the West, so we will have to confront them at every turn until relations have become so terrible that Moscow will conclude that it should yield in all things.  This is not exactly a winning grand strategy, since Russia will not respond in the way that Cornell wants. 

This argument assumes that Moscow craves Western approval above all else and will sacrifice what it considers its legitimate influence on its periphery (particularly in territories that it controlled for more than a century up until 1991) to acquire that approval.  This also assumes that America and Europe actually have an interest in damaging relations with Russia in the short term, when many governments in Europe, particularly Germany’s government, are quite interested to cultivate good relations right now.  None of these assumptions is correct.  There is not going to be a revolution in the internal politics of Russia such that Moscow will cease pursuing its ambitions in the Caucasus or elsewhere in former Soviet space, because these are the places where Moscow will always try to expand its influence.    

Imagine that the Southwestern United States, including all of California, separated from the rest of the country and became a number of independent states after having been part of the U.S. for the last 160 years.  These were lands that had not always belonged to the U.S. and had been acquired through a war of conquest, but over those 160 years Americans came to think of these territories as integral parts of the country.  Would it be wrong for Washington to try to have great influence over these states?  Would it be surprising if Washington viewed those states’ development of close relations with a foreign power on another continent as a potential threat, and wouldn’t it make a certain amount of sense if Washington saw their application to make a military alliance with this foreign power as dangerous and provocative?