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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.

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To be sure, Russia can play the same retribution game, inflicting pain on the West. It could scupper deals, deepen fissures, upset balances, bring insecurity to the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Gulf, and even Europe. Last year's cyber war on Estonia, and blocking United Nations sanctions on Zimbabwe, are easy examples. It can reduce or turn off oil and gas to countries in Europe, block access points to Afghanistan, sell weapons to Syria, and meddle in NATO hopeful Ukraine, a major new concern. It can throw its weight against a whole set of US, EU, and Asian assumptions about an international order.

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The West can target Russia's G-8 membership, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, and begin, fatefully, to start planning militarily for the defense of Eastern Europe – a real game-changer. Mr. Kupchan argues for a "contingent threat" – telling Moscow that if it turns Georgia into a satellite state, "it can expect to find itself isolated. Leave it for Russia to decide."

Yet apart from its new oil millionaires, Russia faces many of the same problems internally that it did in the waning days of the USSR: lack of infrastructure and an inability to pay for geopolitical dreams. China has taken the opposite tack – becoming a "factory for the world."

More deeply, the situation draws out Russian irritation over a West seen as superficial, hypocritical, and making up its own rules.

Former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote last week in the New York Times that, "Russians have been wondering: If our opinion counts for nothing in those [Western] institutions, do we really need them? Just to sit at the nicely set dinner table and listen to lectures? Indeed, Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here's the independence of Kosovo for you. Here's the ... unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?"

Leading thinkers in the West see it differently. "The Russians were obviously well prepared, they pushed the Georgians for at least a year," says French scholar Pierre Hassner. "They played hard ball every step of the way, and now to see Gorbachev, of all people, try to defend this, to accept this story out of the Kremlin – well, it is sad."

r Fred Weir contributed reporting from Moscow.