Interim consequences of the Caucasus conflict

MOSCOW. (Fyodor Lukyanov for RIA Novosti) - It is too early to assess the long-term consequences of the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia in August 2008.

The conflict exposed the contradictions, dissatisfaction and internal tensions that have been accumulating since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As President Dmitry Medvedev has said, it has put an end to any lingering illusions about the reliability of the international security system.

So what conclusions can we make now?

First, the conflict revealed a dramatic difference between the sides' perceptions, which is much deeper than all the previous differences between Russia and the West.

For the first time in years, Russians were almost united in their assessment of the conflict. Not only the country's political leadership, but also a considerable majority of ordinary Russians view the actions of the Russian army and leadership as forced (they had no other option but to retaliate) and fully justified politically, morally and legally.

This is why public opinion in Russia was genuinely shocked by the West's reaction, and particularly its undivided support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who violated every norm of civilized behavior. Russian politicians and ordinary Russians view this not as just another instance of double standards, which is an inherent trait of all policies, but as bare-faced cynicism exceeding the limits of normal political practice.

Second, it has encouraged changes in Russia's foreign policy concept.

Despite growing tensions in relations with the West, President Vladimir Putin's strategic goal was always consistent: to integrate Russia into the international economic and political system. The conditions for such integration were constantly shifting, and the requests made by the country were growing, but nobody cancelled the task.

The "strategic partnerships," which have proliferated over the past 15 years, are now giving way to strategic independence. Integration is no longer on the agenda, but the goal of consolidating spheres of influence to strengthen the country's position as "an independent pole" in the multipolar world has been formulated more clearly and unambiguously than ever before.

This formula is not anti-Western, yet Russia's policy is no longer focused only on the West. Russia will now consider all its steps thoroughly to see what influence they may have on relations with Europe and the United States.

Third, the conflict has proved that Russia has no reliable allies. Moscow should now formulate new principles for relations with countries whose assistance it would like to recruit. Development of lasting alliances has been complicated by objective factors, such as the diverging interests of nearly all countries. Russia can try forging such alliances, but it is more likely to succeed by forming "situation coalitions" to tackle tasks as they arise. This form is better suited to the multipolar world.

Fourth, Russia has shown, for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that it is both able and prepared to use military force outside its national territory to protect its interests. Neighboring countries will now have to consider ways to ensure their security, either with Russia or against it. A big game is beginning in the post-Soviet space, and Russia does not plan to lose it. The polarization of international relations has made multivectoral ties, which until now have been the core of all of the CIS countries' policies, less reliable.

Fifth, Russia's forceful response to the attack on South Ossetia has shown that the Western strategy of gradual takeover of the Soviet Union's geopolitical heritage is no longer viable.

The United States and its European allies will have to choose between taking a tough stand to contain Moscow's reviving ambitions and trying to balance their interests with those of Russia by recognizing its right to a position of its own in its sphere of influence.

The United States' answer to this dilemma may differ from that of Europe. Theoretically, the international community could even consider a new security system involving Russia, just what Medvedev proposed in Berlin in June 2008. However, judging by the Western reaction, this is unlikely.

Sixth, there is a conceptual problem of relations with the United States, a superpower with global ambitions. A leader of the world cannot have secondary interests; it cannot sacrifice anything or exchange some interests for others, because giving way in one sphere might provoke a domino effect. In other words, it will have to force other countries to bow to its will.

An attempt to strengthen its leadership by flexing its military muscle and demonstrating its resolve to protect all of its possible spheres of influence (around the world) may lead to a rapid escalation of tensions.

Seventh, the old institutional system will disintegrate in the next few years, causing severe shocks for everyone concerned. The main task of international diplomacy is to prevent a new all-out war. Politicians must remember that pressurizing other countries to attain one's interests is a shortcut to global disaster.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based magazine Russia in Global Affairs.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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