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Russia's gains in Georgia may leave it more isolated

In the coming weeks, the West will be shaping a long-term response to what many see as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bid to change the post-cold-war world.

By Staff writer / August 26, 2008

Gauntlet on Georgia: In Moscow on Monday, Russia's lower house of parliament unanimously voted to recognize the independence of Georgia's two rebel territories.

Alexander Natruskin/Reuters

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Paris

Russia thirsts to once again be a great power – a lesson the West is learning in Georgia. On Monday, Russia's parliament voted unanimously to recognize the independence of Georgian rebel regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia – the flashpoints of recent fighting. Also, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fired a warning shot about another frozen ethnic conflict in Moldova.

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In the next few weeks, the West will be closely reading Russia's actions and intentions in the Caucasus, including energy-rich Azerbaijan – and will start to shape a long-term response to what many see as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bid to change the post-cold-war world, and potentially dominate former Soviet states.

But Moscow should be careful what it asks for. It just might find real downsides to its pursuit of greatness, including deeper isolation from the very world Russia feels has ignored it since the Soviet empire collapsed, say Western diplomats and foreign policy specialists.

The moment is quite sensitive on both sides – threatening the cooperation with Moscow that the West has come to rely on, but potentially thwarting the global integration of Russia, isolating it, and forcing it to go alone in its search for great power status. If Moscow continues to operate in Georgia, control Georgia's oil future, seek to topple President Mikheil Saakashvili's government, and officially recognize South Ossetia and the more prized Abkhazia republic, then debates in Western capitals are likely to shift to a planning phase, say diplomats.

Already, US officials say, a much-touted civilian nuclear deal between Russia and the US is on hold in the wake of Moscow's heavy-handed attack on Georgia – coming after Tbilisi's Aug. 7-8 attempt to retake South Ossetia. Russia's bid for membership in the World Trade Organization seems dead for now. On Sept. 1 the European Union will hold a summit to deal with humanitarian aid to Georgia, but more crucially, ties with Russia.

Russia fears isolation

Not even China has openly supported Russia's action in Georgia. Isolation may not resonate with Americans and Europeans, who – even if left in the cold by the rest of the world – would enjoy the company of 49 other US states and the 26 other EU members. But it does in Russia – a country whose resurgence, however fitful, is tied to an enormous desire for status, and the creation of wealth via international dealmaking.

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