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Why Russia Can't Be Ignored

The recent military crisis in Georgia hints at larger problems with U.S.-Russian relations.

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The international conflict between Russia and Georgia over the status of Georgia's breakaway territory of South Ossetia rightly brought about hand-wringing from a war-weary international community. The crisis has already caused a humanitarian catastrophe in which thousands have been killed and tens of thousands have been displaced in and around South Ossetia.

The idea of Russian troops potentially occupying the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and deposing the pro-Western Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, rightly conjured geopolitical nightmares that the United States and other Western nations didn't want to think about.

So it's promising that Russia has finally agreed to a conditional cease-fire. Hopefully, the aggressive diplomacy by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the rest of the West will prove decisive, and the cessation of hostilities will hold. As negotiations continue over the days and weeks to come, however, the Bush administration and the presumptive nominees for president should be taking a good look at the state of Russian relations with the West, which are, frankly, a mess.

Improving this vital relationship must be a centerpiece of American foreign policy going forward.

A bit of history: South Ossetia has managed its own affairs since fighting for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. In that relatively short but violent conflict, hundreds were killed and tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes. A peace deal ended the fighting, but essentially froze the conflict without resolving the underlying disagreements.

Under the terms of the deal, Russian peacekeepers moved into South Ossetia, and Georgia was forced to accept de facto autonomy for parts of that region. While South Ossetia has declared independence, it has not been recognized by any other country. And tension has only grown since the 2004 election of Saakashvili, who has promised to bring South Ossetia and another breakaway territory, Abkhazia, back under complete Georgian control.

Why do Ossetians want to break away? In essence, they don't like the Georgians very much. The Ossetians are a distinct ethnic group with origins in the Russian plains. Ethnic Georgians are a minority in South Ossetia, accounting for less than a third of the population. In the past 20 years, tensions between Georgians and South Ossetians have grown, with Ossetians identifying more and more with Russia. This is due, in large part, to Russia's support of the separatists and because so many South Ossetians fled into Russia in the early 1990s.

Most South Ossetians now see Moscow as a protector and would be open to joining up with their ethnic counterparts in North Ossetia—an autonomous region within Russia. Georgia strongly opposes this, and even rejects the name "South Ossetia," preferring to call the region by the ancient name of "Samachablo," or "Tskhinvali," after its primary city.

Occasional clashes escalated this year between Georgia and South Ossetia. Then recently, South Ossetia accused Georgia of firing mortars into the enclave after six Georgian policemen had been killed in the border area by a roadside bomb.

Russian tanks entered South Ossetia last Friday.