U.S. obligations in Iraq means Russia left unchecked

A confrontation between Russia and its southern neighbor Georgia has serious implications for the rest of eastern Europe, especially other countries that had been forced into the former Soviet Union and resumed independence when that empire collapsed. Perhaps more significant, it is unlikely Russia would have pushed so hard in this small crisis unless it perceived the United States as inattentive and ineffective.

Russia has closed virtually all transportation links between Russia and Georgia, which also affects Armenia, which conducts most of its trade with Russia through Georgian territory. This came after the Georgian government arrested four Russian soldiers and charged them with espionage. (They have since been released.)

The Russians have two military bases inside Georgia, a hangover from the Soviet era. Georgians believe the Russians are supporting secessionist forces in two Georgian provinces.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power in January 2004 after the “Rose Revolution,” has instituted modest market reforms and seeks to align his country more with the West, seeking membership in NATO.

Ratcheting up the pressure on Georgia will hurt — Russia is its largest trading partner, and Georgia’s economy will be hurt more by a transportation cut-off than will Russia’s. It is likely Russian President Vladimir Putin’s way of letting Georgia and other former satellites in what Russians call the “near abroad” — Belarus, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine — know that Russia intends to be dominant and is willing to play hardball.

Russia is no doubt being more aggressive than it would be if it didn’t perceive the United States as being fixated on Iraq and the Bush administration as a weak lame-duck regime. As the international consulting firm Stratfor.com put it in an advisory last week: “The Russians frankly do not see the United States as capable of taking meaningful action at this point. This means Moscow can take risks, exert pressure and shift dynamics in ways it might have avoided a year ago for fear of U.S. reprisals.”

Staying out of this convoluted dispute may well be the prudent course for the United States, anyway. But it does look as if being tied to the war in Iraq is allowing Russia, which still aspires to being a world power again, to take steps toward those goals while the United States is busy elsewhere.