The Russia of President Vladimir Putin has taken a number of provocative military steps in recent days, creating concern about how the US and Europe should engage with a country that also has a vital role to play in Middle East peacemaking and the nuclear standoff with Iran.
On Tuesday, Georgia said a Russian jet fired a missile at a radar installation in the country's disputed South Ossetia region, which its president alleged was part of an intimidation campaign by a Russia that, as the Soviet Union, once ruled many of its neighbors, reports Reuters.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said the missile, which did not explode, was part of a pattern of Russian aggression against its neighbors across Europe and urged European states to condemn Moscow.
"This is not Georgia's problem. This is a problem for European security and safety," Saakashvili said in English after traveling to the village where the missile landed.
Russia has responded by saying Georgia is lying about the incident, though the US is siding with Georgia, an ally that has sent troops to the war in Iraq, reports the Associated Press.
On Saturday, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov insisted Georgia had faked the incident to prevent a planned meeting of a commission of South Ossetian and Georgian authorities to discuss the decade-long standoff over the region's status.
"The authors of this theatrical presentation achieved their main goal — they ruined the meeting," he said.
Georgia's Foreign Ministry said records from radars compatible with NATO standards showed that a Russian Su-24 jet had flown into Georgia and launched a missile. Investigators identified the weapon as a Russian-made Raduga Kh-58 missile, designed to hit radars, the ministry said.
Georgia accuses Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia of backing the separatists, and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has vowed to bring the region back under central government control.
In a reflection of Russia's clout, the United Nation's Security Council has refused to meet Georgia's request for an emergency meeting on the alleged attack, saying it needs more information, Reuters reports.
In the absence of any information, the council members considered we should await the results of any inquiry, in particular the one by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) ... before taking any decision," (Council President Pascal Gayama of Congo Republic) told reporters.
Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, one of five veto-holding powers on the council, said: "This thing has to be thoroughly investigated first."
"We do not see any reason for holding such a Security Council meeting right now because there is nothing on the table. We have to have facts," said another Russian official, who asked not to be identified.
In an editorial, The Washington Post argues the Russians have a strong hand when it comes to UN actions.
The missile incident disturbingly resembles a March incident in which a missile was fired at a government building in Abkhazia, a Georgian territory that is home to pro-Russian rebels. Then, too, the evidence pointed to Russian aggression, but a United Nations report stopped short of blaming Russia – probably because the Russians had to sign off on the document.
Meanwhile, the Russians admit they've taken a more confrontational approach in another area in a move that harks back to the cold war games of chicken played between Soviet and US pilots, the British Broadcasting Corp. reports.
Two Tu-95 turboprop [bombers] flew this week to Guam, home to a big US military base, Russian Maj Gen Pavel Androsov said.
They "exchanged smiles" with US pilots who scrambled to track them, he added.
"It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet [US] aircraft carriers and greet [US pilots] visually," he said at a news conference.
"Yesterday [Wednesday] we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the base of Guam," he said.
The US response to that incident has, so far, been muted, The Washington Post reports.
U.S. defense officials in Washington said Thursday that the Russian move in the Pacific was not seen as a provocation but that it did get attention. U.S. forces -- including 22,000 troops, 30 ships and 275 aircraft -- are working alongside Japanese forces in the waters near Guam this week as part of a massive war game dubbed Exercise Valiant Shield.
Nevertheless, Russia's increasing military assertiveness is leaving US policymakers in a quandary. The country, which was at one time building a nuclear plant in Iran but has since suspended construction, has been closer to US views on handling that issue lately.
But analysts say the country's help on that front also comes as it maneuvers for a freer hand in areas it considers to be in its sphere of influence, like Georgia or Kosovo, where Russia has been backing Serbia's opposition to independence, and limiting the expansion of NATO.
The Washington Times reports that a booming economy is convincing Russia to assert itself.
The resurgence of nationalism reflects the popular feeling that the United States and the West exploited Russia's weakness after the Soviet collapse and the fact that the Kremlin's coffers are now bulging because of energy revenue, according to Ariel Cohen, a Russia specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
"Flush with cash, Russia today is constantly looking for avenues to boost its geopolitical muscle," he said. "That has translated into some very ambitious strategic programs."
Anatole Kaletsky, a Russian-born senior columnist for The Times of London says Putin has felt backed into a corner by the moves of the US and its allies and that he's turning the tables by taking actions that may appear provocative to outsiders but are generally popular at home.
Mr Putin faces a difficult transition from his present position as a wildly popular czarist-style absolute ruler to some kind of power behind the throne – a kingmaker or political puppeteer possibly modelled on Deng Xiaoping, of China, or Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore, but with no real parallel in Russian history. In managing this unprecedented transition, nothing is more useful to Mr Putin than his image as the first national leader since Stalin who could stand up for Russia's interests against an inherently hostile world. This is why all the EU's complaints about neo-imperialist bullying of Poland and Estonia, all the lectures from President Bush about democracy and all the admonitions about human rights from Mrs Merkel are water off a duck's back to President Putin.
Why is hostility to the West so popular in Russia? … US and European behavior has consistently treated Russia more as an enemy than an ally. Russia has been told it could never join Nato or the EU and Mr Putin's invitation to G8 summits is scant consolation for the denial of WTO membership and the continuation of US trade sanctions dating back to the Cold War. On human rights and extrajudicial assassinations, Russia's record may be deplorable, but its abuses pale in comparison with those of Western friends such as Saudi Arabia and China, not to mention President Bush's "boil them in oil" ally, Uzbekistan.