It's no second Cold War, but caution is required

By Lee Hamilton
Sep 8 2008

 It took the dog days of August to thaw the frozen conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus. As the Soviet Union disintegrated almost two decades ago, pro–Russian regions fought for autonomy under Georgian rule. Tensions have persisted ever since.

The debate over who started the war continues, but there is no doubt that Russia finished it — demonstrably.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is now stuck with a partially occupied country, a devastated military, infrastructure in shambles, and some foreign investors looking for the exit.

Russia has evaded its cease–fire responsibilities, ratcheted up hostile rhetoric, and recognized South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence. Moscow has achieved its major objectives: destabilizing the democratically elected Saakashvili government, detaching Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, and sending a message to other boisterous states in Russia's “sphere of influence.”

But it has scared its neighbors, inspired trans–Atlantic unity, and exacerbated the challenges of integrating into the world order, a long–term Russian objective.

Today the breakaway regions are satisfied, the Georgians are angry, the Kremlin is confident, and Russia's neighbors are perturbed.

Meanwhile, an alarmed United States is speaking loudly and carrying a twig.

Condoleezza Rice's July promise that “The United States considers the territorial integrity of Georgia to be inviolable” proved hollow. We sent mixed messages to Tbilisi's leadership regarding America's response to renewed conflict. Moscow called Georgia's, and our, bluff.

Support for NATO expansion eastward, missile defense in Poland, recognition of Kosovo's independence enraged a Russia that, for the first time since the Soviet Union's collapse, has cards to play. The question is how to respond to Russia in a firm, unified way that avoids further escalation but expresses our strong disapproval. The West should insist that Russia withdraw troops to their pre–conflict positions.

Suspending U.S.–Russia military cooperation, stepping back from a civilian nuclear agreement, and delaying Russia's accession to the WTO are reasonable policy courses, but each could be counterproductive. At stake is future Russian cooperation on securing loose nuclear weapons, curtailing Iran's nuclear program, encouraging North Korean nuclear disarmament, and cooperation on counterterrorism.

The conflict's ramifications for trans–Atlantic and intra–European relations are also significant. Some European countries want the West to take a harder line. But Russia also provides Europe with one–third of its energy, which is partly why Germany, Italy and France favor a less confrontational approach. Unity with our allies is essential.

What does the endgame for this conflict look like?

South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not reverting to Georgian control. We should push hard for European or U.N. peacekeepers to replace Russian troops to enforce the terms of the cease–fire. For the time being, NATO expansion to Georgia is not possible given the region's instability.

This does not mean Georgia is not an ally. Its support in Iraq and Afghanistan and its uncertain movement toward democracy rightfully have earned it America's respect and appreciation. Reconstruction funding and military aid for defensive weapons systems should continue. But the U.S. should make clear to Georgia exactly what it will and will not do in its support. We must have confidence that freedom will prevail.

A second Cold War is not under way. The world is not bipolar, the U.S.–Russian relationship is tense, but not at an end, and Russia's economy is in many ways integrated with the West. Russia must be taking note of the foreign capital that has fled the country since its aggression.

The bottom line is that for Russia belligerence and international partnership are mutually exclusive. It remains in both the U.S. and Russian interest to pursue cooperation, not confrontation.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)