Before he became Russia's president last week, Dmitry Medvedev came across as less edgy than Vladimir Putin when talking about the West. Some Kremlin watchers thought this might mean a spring thaw in relations with the US and Europe. Now there's a case to test this theory.
It's on Russia's southern border, in a region as ethnically charged as the Balkans. There, American friend and NATO aspirant Georgia says it's on the brink of war with Russia. The immediate cause of the tension is – what else? – ethnic nationalism and desires for independence in two regions in Georgia.
Last month, then-President Putin seriously escalated the tension by essentially recognizing Georgia's two separatist-minded areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The two have significant Russian populations and have been heavily influenced by Russia ever since they tried and failed to split in armed conflict from Georgia after the Soviet breakup in 1991.
Also last month, according to Georgia, a Russian fighter jet shot down an unmanned Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia. Moscow denied it and a few days later – without consulting Georgia – sent more Russian "peacekeepers" into Abkhazia, which is still part of Georgia's sovereign territory. Russia accuses Georgia of secretly massing troops for an invasion of Abkhazia.
As Russia's new president, Mr. Medvedev inherits this tinderbox. But based on a speech last week, he seems comfortable holding the match that patron Putin handed him. At a military parade reminiscent of Soviet days, Medvedev indirectly warned the West that world wars come from "irresponsible ambitions" (read: NATO expansion) and said Russia needed to take very seriously "intentions to intrude in the affairs of other states and especially redraw borders" (read: the West's recognition this year of independent Kosovo, which used to be part of Serbia, Russia's ally).
In this light, it's not hard to guess what's behind Russia's military muscling in Georgia. It feels threatened by a NATO that appears to be advancing its chess pieces deep into Russian squares. Just the possibility that Georgia and Ukraine might one day become NATO members is too much for Russia. Intent on reasserting influence on its "near abroad," Moscow is now doing everything it can to bully Georgia (and by extension, Ukraine) – all with the expectation that NATO is unlikely to interfere.
Also, Russia's still smarting at the humiliation over Kosovo (though May 11 elections show Serbs seem to be getting over it). In what looks like back-at-you politics, Russia's showing that two can play at the breakaway-republics game.
And that's the problem. Instead of understanding the expansion of democratic institutions such as NATO and the European Union as a response to people's natural yearnings for economic progress and freedom, Russia still sees it as a competition.
That can have unintended consequences. If Medvedev, for instance, doesn't "back down" on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as the US has asked, he may inadvertently spark independence drives among nonRussian groups in Russia. Only recently has Russia tamed Chechnya. Let's hope consequences such as this give Medvedev pause before he lights the Georgia match.