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 reestablish 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. …