But a war between these two countries would threaten security in the volatile Caucasus and eastern Black Sea region and the booming exports of Caspian energy through Georgia, adding pressure to already sky-high oil prices throughout the world. It would also endanger US and NATO security interests in an area not far removed from the Middle East.
Thanks largely to wise Russian diplomacy at the time, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw the emergence of peaceful borders between the 15 new states. One exception was, and still is, Abkhazia, a strategically located separatist region in Georgia. Russia borders the region to the north and exerts military control and economic leverage over it. And now, Russia, which fiercely opposes Georgian membership in NATO, appears to be taking steps to annex Abkhazia – to the chagrin of Georgia.
In April, then-President Vladimir Putin extended Russia's economic, legal, and administrative writ to Abkhazia. A few days later, a Russian fighter aircraft destroyed a Georgian unmanned surveillance plane, though Russia denies it.
Ruffling Georgia's feathers even more, Russia put 1,000 troops into Abkhazia for peacekeeping and railway repair. Georgia now seems at a breaking point.
If Russia steps down from this posturing, it could lead to the reopening of land transport through Abkhazia to Georgia and Armenia; a peaceful Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014; and more tourism, shipping, and investment in the eastern Black Sea region.
If Georgia and Russia can avoid military confrontation, Georgia could benefit with the return of internal refugees to their homes in Abkhazia, enhanced confidence in energy security, and entry into NATO.
But, if Russia and Georgia continue as they have, it could quickly spiral into war.
What can be done?
First, Georgia must strengthen its own democracy and demonstrate it is confident enough to handle the complicated issues surrounding Abkhazia. This will help convince ethnic Abkhaz that their rights will be respected after reintegration.
Last month's parliamentary elections in Georgia were an improvement over presidential elections held last January and a step forward from November 2007 when government forces broke up large opposition demonstrations.
A massive demonstration last month, however, suggests that more must be done to heal fissures. Georgia needs to be open to freedom of the press and political parties and civil society having freedom of activity. Opposition forces in Georgia must recognize the rules of the democratic game, take their seats in parliament, and contribute constructively to political dialogue.
Second, Russia must recognize that its long-term interests are best served through peace in the eastern Black Sea region. Russia is not and will not be another USSR, but some of its current actions are reminiscent of that era.
Russia should recall its successful diplomacy of the early 1990s. In fact, at a meeting on June 6 in St. Petersburg, Russian President Medvedev and Georgian President Saakashvili said the two countries could resolve their differences. It was a promising step, but with no follow-through thus far.
Third, Georgia and Russia require outside help. As Sens. Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar recently stated, "Georgia cannot win this standoff alone." They called on Europe "to get off the fence," and the US to lead an intensive effort to internationalize the negotiations and the Russian peacekeeping missions in Abkhazia and a second separatist region, South Ossetia.
In order for that to happen, the US and Europe need to rebalance their priorities: Russia has taken advantage of US and European preoccupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Europe's slow rolling of Georgia's ambitions to join NATO and the EU.
The US and the European Union should recognize the risk of war and jointly commit more resources to work with Russia and Georgia to avert it. This requires energizing the Friends of Georgia group at the United Nations (France, Germany, Russia, Britain, and the US), and reaching out to Black Sea states such as Turkey and Ukraine.
The US and the EU should also offer substantial assistance for reconstruction in Abkhazia. Deeper US and NATO support for Georgia's security, including training, exercises, and equipment, and launching the NATO Membership Action Plan, will give Georgia more confidence to take political risks to help solve their issues with Abkhazia.
In March, President Saakashvili offered an encouraging framework for a solution – broad autonomy for Abkhazia in return for accepting Georgia's writ. According to a May 31 Le Monde press report, President Putin called it a "good plan."
To calm the storm that seems to be gathering dangerous momentum in the region, the US and Europe should give the Abkhazia issue new priority and work with Russia and Georgia to resolve this crisis.
Both US presidential candidates should endorse these efforts. The interests of regional peace and unimpeded energy flow demand no less.
Kenneth Yalowitz and William Courtney are both retired career diplomats and former US ambassadors to Georgia. Yalowitz is now the director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.