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.
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.
Capital flight from Moscow between Aug. 8 and Aug. 15 – estimated as high as $17 billion – may have caught the Kremlin by surprise, created worry among new millionaires in Russia, and given Mr. Putin pause. "To investors the message is clear," says Pierre Briancon of French daily Le Monde. "Russia has become a major risk."
But for Moscow, isolation is the most unwanted outcome. "We know that isolation is significant because the Russians have complained about it for over a decade," says Charles Kupchan of the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations. "The West has treated Russia like an object and not a player. Russia has sought to be at the table. So now the West faces a catch-22: We can threaten Russia's exclusion from the international community, but that threat is one of the main causes of Russia's anger."
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs, affirms that the Georgia conflict has isolated Russia. "The big minus is something we previously suspected, but now know for sure: that Russia is completely alone. The notion of 'strategic solitude' has been discussed in our academic journals for some time, but now it's clear that Russia finds itself without any sympathy in the world."
As seen generally in Western capitals, the Georgian crisis illustrates the problem: Moscow used disproportionate force to seize both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, treated the cease-fire in a cavalier fashion, yet wants acceptance by the international community and argues it is being victimized when it doesn't achieve that acceptance. Russia wants to be great, and will sacrifice for this status. But in the current globalized world, it must work with others. Russia can't be "great" in the 19th century sense, in the 21st century. Today, as in the rising China example, big powers must work with others, despite flaws. Russia has yet to find this path.
"Russia is unable to be attractive for others. This is their basic problem," says Thomas Gomart of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "Their only supporters on Georgia are Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Syria. They want to be compared to the US and feel they should be. But they are unable to set up an alliance process; no one wants to go with them. They have to play a great game, but have to be alone."
For now, Russia holds all the cards in Georgia. The Kremlin is reveling in its skillful handling of operations; national pride is high. Moscow essentially brushed aside phone calls on Aug. 25 by Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France and the EU, about where its troops can be positioned inside sovereign Georgia according to an EU-brokered cease-fire.
"We are watching them say one thing and do another. And the more they create confusion, the more unpopular they are" in the West, says Mr. Gomart. "But Russia right now doesn't care."
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.
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.