The Russian attack#151the first outside its territory since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991#151has sparked renewed tension between Russia and the United States and its European allies.
"With its actions in recent days, Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world," President Bush said. "Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century."
When the Soviet Union collapsed 17 years ago, a third of its empire escaped Moscow's control. A smaller, economically devastated Russia was for many years unable to play the grand role on the world stage it had been accustomed to when the Soviet Union shared superpower status with the U.S. There was little Russia could do as its former republics and Eastern European satellites grew closer#151economically, politically, and militarily#151to the U.S. and Europe. But in recent years, Russia's economy recovered as its Communist policies gave way to free-market reforms, and oil revenues soared along with the price of oil. (Russia is the world's second largest oil producer, after Saudi Arabia.) Feeling more confident, Russia has been taking a more assertive role in world affairs, expressing its displeasure about its former republics' closer ties with the U.S. and NATO.
Georgia in particular has been a thorn in the side of Russia's leaders, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin and President Dmitri A. Medvedev. The U.S. has supported Georgia's democratic reforms, trained its military, and backed its bid to join NATO.
Russia's invasion followed the escalation of a long-simmering dispute over two small regions in Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) with close ties to Russia. But in international affairs, regional disputes can have powerful ramifications around the globe. U.S.-Russian cooperation on key issues like Iran's nuclear program, weapons treaties, and counterterrorism could now be at risk. In addition, a newly emboldened but estranged Russia could use its influence, money, and energy resources to undermine American interests around the world. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says that Russia unleashed its military into Georgia to accomplish two goals: to punish Georgia for trying to integrate with the West and to warn other nations in the former Soviet sphere of influence against closer ties with Washington and its NATO allies.
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili agrees. "It is clear that Russia's current leadership is bent on restoring a neocolonial form of control over the entire space once governed by Moscow," he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. In fact, the 10-day war between Russia and Georgia has other nations that were once behind the Iron Curtain worried about their own security.
"We're next," says Tanya Mydruk, 22, of Ukraine, expressing the fears of many.
Obama & McCain
Washington hopes Russia will restrain itself out of its own self-interest; Moscow, for instance, does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, nor does it want the Taliban to regain power in Afghanistan. Russia's aggression may also be checked by the desire of its growing middle and upper classes to remain on the path to integration with the rest of the world.
While Republican presidential nominee John McCain has taken a hard line against Russia in recent years, he and Democratic nominee Barack Obama found themselves on the same page in the aftermath of the invasion: Both said the U.N. should get involved; both spoke of deploying international peacekeepers in the disputed areas; and both called for putting Georgia on a path to NATO membership.
Whoever wins in November is likely to find that dealing with Russia#151which wasn't that high on the radar screen when the campaign began last year#151is a top foreign policy challenge.
"My guess," Defense Secretary Gates says, "is that everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we look ahead."