U.S. May Have Misjudged Russia; 'Frozen Conflicts' Can Heat Up Quickly in Areas of the Former Soviet Union

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They're called frozen conflicts. They are areas of the former Soviet Union where ethnic hostilities have simmered for 15 years, since the end of the Cold War, awaiting the slightest provocation to escalate into a wider war.

When Russian tanks rolled across the border into Georgia last week, one such conflict, between the former Soviet republic of Georgia and the breakaway province of South Ossetia, heated up.

Whether the Russian intervention was, as its leaders have stated, to protect its peacekeepers and civilians or was a broader message to the West to stem its incursion into the former Soviet sphere of influence, the scene was reminiscent to many of Cold War-style aggression.

Amid disputes over a declared cease-fire, it remains to be seen how the West will respond to Russia and whether Russia's military incursion was an isolated response or a significant change in policy toward the West.

Georgia is the first test case, its president, Mikhail Saakashvili, said at a rally in the capital, Tbilisi, on Tuesday. It was chosen first because it was a very successful democracy. We had the highest economic growth rate here; we have freedom of press, civil society.

Relations between Russia and Georgia have deteriorated steadily since Mr. Saakashvili's election in 2004. The pro-Western Mr. Saakashvili, who ousted former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in what is referred to as the Rose Revolution in 2003, dramatically increased military spending and applied for NATO membership.

His efforts to reach out to the United States were rewarded with a visit in April 2005 from President Bush, who encouraged closer cooperation with NATO and lauded the ties between Tbilisi and Washington.

Georgia deployed 2,000 troops to Iraq, marking the third-largest coalition contingent behind the United States and Great Britain. Most of those troops were withdrawn when the armed conflict with Russia began.

The growing ties between Georgia and the West have angered Russia. Some analysts say that while Russia's military action was a means of punishing Georgia for moving into the separatist region of South Ossetia, it also was a response to Georgia's turning its back on Moscow and throwing in with the West.

Over the objections of the United States, several NATO nations at an April summit in Romania blocked preliminary applications by Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance. Opponents cited Russian objections to further NATO enlargement, which would take the Western military alliance to Russia's southern border.

The alliance was expected to take up the issue again at meetings in December, but the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Wednesday called on NATO to give Georgia a clear road map to membership in the alliance in response to Russia's military action.

Russian leaders seethed as Georgia brought in Americans to arm and train its troops. One of the first spots reportedly struck by Russian aircraft was a military base outside the Georgian capital where more than 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers led exercises last month.

The dispute has put the Bush administration in the position of middleman between a promising ally it wants to help and the powerful former adversary next door whose help it needs.

Washington praises democratic development in Georgia, delights in its contribution of combat troops for Iraq and acknowledges valuable intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation. But Moscow's cooperation is vital to numerous Washington aims in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere.

For all those reasons and the fact that Georgia has demonstrated that it is a close ally, we cannot simply sit by and say, 'So be it, what does South Ossetia mean to us?'[TFI] said Janusz Bugajski, director of the new European democracies project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. …