There is war in the air between Georgia and Russia. Such a war could destabilize a region critical for Western energy supplies and ruin relations between Russia and the West. A conflict over Georgia could become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. How they respond could become a test of the potential commander-in-chief qualities of Barack Obama and John McCain.
The issue appears to be the future of Abkhazia, a breakaway province of Georgia and the focus of a so-called frozen conflict. The real issue, however, is Moscow's desire to subjugate Tbilisi and thwart its aspirations to go west. For several years, Russian policy toward countries on its borders has been hardening. Moscow has concluded that democratic breakthroughs in places such as Georgia and Ukraine are threats that need to be squashed. It is using the "frozen conflicts" in such places as Abkhazia and South Ossetia to reestablish a sphere of influence. With a lame-duck president in Washington and Europe heading off on vacation, Moscow may sense an opportunity to "resolve" this issue once and for all.
This latest round of Russian aggression started after the West recognized Kosovo's provisional independence in February and NATO bungled the issue of offering Georgia and Ukraine a membership action plan at its Bucharest summit in April. Moscow has since launched a creeping annexation of Abkhazia, including a series of illegal moves to strengthen its military hand and to provoke Tbilisi into actions that could lead to further Russian military intervention.
Many in the West are tempted to look the other way. This crisis is, after all, inconvenient. Georgian democracy is far from perfect, and Tbilisi has certainly made its own mistakes. Russia has a new president who we all hope could be more liberal and open to the West. We also need Moscow to be aligned with the West in the United Nations on issues from Iran to North Korea to Zimbabwe. This is an awkward time to take a tough stance. It would be only too easy to equivocate, blame all parties a little and call for more diplomacy.
But this approach is making war in the Caucasus more likely, not less so.
Its warts notwithstanding, Georgia is the region's best hope for democratic development. If the Rose Revolution fails, we will wait a generation or more for another chance for positive change. Critical principles, including sovereignty and territorial integrity, are at stake. Russia is seeking to redefine the rules of post-Cold War European security to its advantage. And as Georgia is considered America's project, U.S. prestige is on the line. The Rose Revolution was animated by American values. Tbilisi has pursued American-style economic reforms, has soldiers in Iraq and wants to join NATO. The region is waiting to see whether and when Washington will step in. If we don't try to stop Russia's overstepping, countries in the region -- from Azerbaijan to Central Asian energy producers -- will recalculate accordingly.
There is one way to stop this Russian power play for Georgia: solidarity. Working with our allies in Europe, we can draw a clear line and tell Moscow that there will be real consequences in its relations with us if it does not stop its aggressive course. Georgia, too, needs to act to de-escalate the tension. Yet Tbilisi cannot resolve this crisis alone. Halting the drift toward war requires heavy lifting by the West. In the short term, we need to prevent a conflict from starting this summer. In the medium term, we need Moscow to reverse its creeping -- and illegal -- annexation of Abkhazia. In the longer term, we need to establish an authentic peace process that can resolve the conflict for good.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is finally engaged in this issue personally. President Bush should be, too. After all, Vladimir Putin, with whom he prides himself on having a close relationship, is the mastermind of this anti-Georgia campaign. If McCain and Obama issued statements strongly supporting Georgia, Moscow would have no illusions that its actions in the months ahead would affect U.S.-Russian relations after January, no matter which of the two senators becomes president.
Last weekend, I attended a conference at Lavadia Palace in Yalta. In the place where Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill acquiesced in February 1945 to Joseph Stalin's desire for a sphere of influence, I couldn't help thinking about the costs and consequences of accepting spheres of influence today. Many suspect that Crimea could be the next target if Moscow subjugates Georgia and then shifts its sights to Ukraine. Whatever the failings of these countries, they deserve better in the 21st century. They should be free to choose their own paths and to become normal democratic societies, including joining the European Union or NATO, if they so choose. That is why we should stand up for Georgia today. Accepting Moscow's demand for a sphere of influence was wrong in 1945. It would be wrong again today.
Ronald D. Asmus, executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center and is in charge of strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.