Georgia on Obama's mind?
It should be. The conflict that severely strained US-Russia ties still simmers – showing how hard it will be to repair relations.
Tensions between Russia and that former Soviet republic are worsening. "Extensive fighting could erupt again," warns the International Crisis Group, a think tank.
It's been almost a year since Russia and Georgia were embroiled in fighting, with Russian tanks penetrating deep into Georgia's territory.
The August war focused on two Georgian separatist provinces that lie on Russia's southern border – South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But much bigger forces were at work, including democratic Georgia's aspiration to join NATO, its role as a transit country for Caspian Sea oil and gas, and Russia's intent to retain influence in its "near abroad."
A cease-fire brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy got the Russians to pull back from this small democratic nation. But Moscow has not lived up to the agreement. Troops have not returned to their pre-war levels or locations, as promised. In April, Moscow sent more forces into both provinces – which, after the invasion, it recognized as independent states.
Now Russia is drawing a curtain over its doings in the provinces, effectively kicking out international monitors so the world can't see what's happening.
Last month, Moscow vetoed the extension of a 130-strong United Nations monitoring force for Abkhazia. It has also prevented the extension of a 200-person observer team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that was meant to monitor South Ossetia. Both missions were established in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were to help enforce a cease-fire after South Ossetia and Abkhazia tried to break away from Georgia. The two observer missions are packing up this week.
All that's left is an unarmed group of 200 monitors in Georgia sent by the European Union as part of last summer's cease-fire. Their mission ends Oct. 1. Clearly, the EU must expand and extend its job.
But this is not all. This week, Russia undertook its biggest military exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union – 8,500 troops involving the Army, Air Force, and Navy, all moving in the volatile Caucasus area and just a stone's throw from Georgia. Moscow says it's responding to May's NATO exercises in Georgia – which itself is facing internal protests over the government's handling of the recent war.
The West is trying to sweep this time bomb under the rug as if it were a dust bunny. Indeed, NATO last week relaunched its "partnership" with Russia after putting it on ice after the war. And then there's President Obama's coming bear hug with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The harsh geopolitical calculus is this: Russia is worth more to the West as a potential partner on such issues as terrorism, Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation, Iran, North Korea, climate change, and the global economy, than is the tiny state of Georgia and its democratic yearnings.
That may indeed be the correct – if callous – calculus. Certainly neither the US nor its NATO allies were willing to intervene militarily last summer. And they would be unlikely to do so should Russia move to actually take Georgia or somehow install a puppet regime, as some suspect it is preparing to do.
But Russia's brutish stance toward Georgia should serve as a clear warning that a warmer relationship may not pay off, as the West, or Mr. Obama, hopes. It also shows that Moscow does not share the same values as the West. It prefers secrecy to transparency, threat to persuasion. It views democracy as a danger, not a stabilizer.
At the same time, can Washington even be sure that Moscow shares its interests? A nuclear arms reduction deal is likely to come out of this visit, and that's a good thing. Progress is also being made on counter-terrorism cooperation in Afghanistan. But it looks like Russia doesn't perceive Iran – with which it has strong economic ties – as such an alarming threat.
Moscow, for instance, wants to sell S-300 missiles to Iran. The S-300 can shoot down cruise missiles and aircraft that are 120 miles distant, and it makes Israel very, very nervous. Might Israel take preemptive action before Iran gets the S-300? Russia argues that these missiles are defensive in nature.
Two military heavyweights like Russia and the US should be talking to each other, not throwing eggs. The outreach by Washington is to be encouraged. But eyes should be wide open about the possibility of rebuilding a relationship when one party is keen on change while the other is sticking to its bellicose, arm-twisting ways. Georgia serves as the reminder of the limitations of a "reset" strategy.