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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.

In essence, Georgia overplayed its hand—believing that the West would be more forceful in keeping Russia in check and that Russia would be more measured in its response. Russia, on the other hand, overreacted, and used a level of force well beyond that necessary to re-take South Ossetia. Both sides blame each other for the current conflict and accuse each other of atrocities.


What does the situation tell us about Russian relations with the West? First of all, Russia's overbearing response to the crisis demonstrates that Russia is likely still angry about NATO's indication that Georgia would be allowed to join the alliance at some point, as well as other international matters such as America's missile defense plans in Europe (which Russia feels threatened by) and the West's support for Kosovo's independence from Serbia earlier this year (against Moscow's wishes). Russia clearly feels the need to flex its muscles in the Caucasus and show that it's still the dominant player in the region.

At the same time, the crisis shows that the United States doesn't really have a relationship with Russia at the moment and has been relegated to making empty threats when Russia behaves badly. The United States isn't about to start a war with Russia.

The administration was correct to condemn Russia's overreaction and continued aggression in both Georgia proper and the South Ossetian region. Key strategic interests are at stake, including a pipeline carrying oil through Georgia to the West. But the crisis also shows that we need a more comprehensive and coherent Russia policy. Whether the United States likes it or not, we need Russia to effectively deal with Iran, non-proliferation and other security matters. The United States must have a more effective strategy than simply reacting aggressively to crises as they arise. We can't afford a return to the bad old days of the Cold War.


Spencer P. Boyer is Director of international law and diplomacy with the Center for American Progress.