Russia comes back.

THE psychodrama playing out in the Caucasus is not the first act of World War III, as some hyperventilating politicians and commentators would like to portray it. Rather, it is the delayed final act of the cold war. And while the Soviet Union lost that epic conflict, Russia won this curtain call in a way that ensures Washington will have to take it far more seriously in the future.

This is not just because, as some foreign-policy “realists” have argued, Moscow has enough troops and oil to force us to take into consideration its supposedly irrational fears. Rather, the conflict in Georgia showed how rational Russia’s concerns over American meddling in its traditional sphere of influence are, and that Washington had better start treating it like the great power it still is.

As the cold war ended, the Russians voluntarily, if grudgingly, gave up their cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe, but they still view it as a necessary zone of protection. The United States brushed off the Russian complaints over the deployment of American missiles into Eastern Europe and Washington’s effort to extend NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. But Russians have a good point that, to them, this is as if Moscow had signed up Cuba and Venezuela in a military pact and then tried to plant missiles there pointing north.

It was inevitable that the Russians, now restored to prosperity by their oil and gas resources, would push back somewhere, and the hot-headed Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, gave them an easy excuse. What has followed in Washington is a field day of self-righteous indignation as politicians on both sides of the aisle line up to proclaim their solidarity with the little guy and deplore the interference of bullies in nations that just want to be left alone.

But such grandstanding ignores an old truth of geopolitics: great powers live by different rules than do minor ones. They demand respect — and obedience — from their weak neighbors. Sometimes they are explicit about this, as was United States Secretary of State Richard Olney when, in 1895, he declared, with respect to the Monroe Doctrine, that “today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.”

Moscow cannot be expected to show any less concern about the political orientation of the former constituent republic on its critical southern frontier. Great powers zealously guard what they benignly refer to as their “sphere of influence.” This may be a shame, but it is the way the world works, and always has. And no country has been more insistent than the United States in demanding that its interests be respected by its neighbors. Latin Americans can attest to that.

The limits of Russia’s post-cold-war retreat have apparently been reached, and the reversal of the power equation has gone too far to be sustained. Today’s leaders in Moscow are determined to protect what they perceive as their vital interests. The task for American leaders is not to pretend that these interests do not exist or can be safely ignored. Rather, it is to work out a modus vivendi based not on wishful thinking or dreams of even greater glory, but on the sober facts of power realities.

The first essential step for the leader of the Western alliance is to tone down the bombast and restore a dialogue with Russia. Our peripatetic secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, should have jetted off to Moscow, not Tbilisi. Careless talk about throwing Russia out of the Group of 8 economic powers will only backfire against the West’s own interests. The whole point of such organizations is not that they are a reward for obliging behavior, but rather that they provide a forum for dealing with common problems.

Second, we should shelve loose talk about bringing either Ukraine or Georgia into NATO — at least until we are willing to invite Russia itself. NATO is essentially still a cold-war military pact seeking a new identity that it has not yet found. Admitting these two former Soviet republics would be interpreted by Moscow as anti-Russian provocation — and rightly so. And even if it didn’t provoke a new cold war, it would create serious tensions within NATO itself.

Third, we should meet with our NATO partners to work out a common approach to the problem of ethnic separatism. We handled this badly in the Balkans by facilitating the violent dismemberment of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines, and then, over vociferous Russian objections, recognizing the rebellious Serbian province of Kosovo as a separate state. The tearing apart of nations along ethnic lines is not a problem limited to the Balkans. Strong separatist movements exist in several European states, such as Britain, Italy and Spain, and may soon tear Belgium apart. Is this a development that we want to facilitate?

At a time when this nation is bogged down in two costly and seemingly endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, it would not seem prudent to pick a fight with Russia over a rebellious, territorially ambitious former province. And it might be wise to recall the warning of John Quincy Adams in 1821 that by going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” to support the territorial ambitions of others, the United States would “involve herself beyond the power of extraction in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”

Ronald Steel is a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.

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