What was Moscow after?

Times Staff Writer

Russia appears to be rolling back its military incursion into neighboring Georgia. But that’s probably because what Russia wanted wasn’t territory at all.

Instead, experts say, by sending in its troops Russia seized the upper hand strategically in dealing with countries around its periphery.

“They don’t want to rebuild the Soviet Union, but they do want a sphere of influence,” said Steven Pifer, a former deputy assistant secretary of State and ambassador to Ukraine.


Russia has itched to strike at southern neighbor Georgia’s brash, Western-oriented leader, President Mikheil Saakashvili. And Saakashvili gave the Kremlin an opportunity when he sent troops into the separatist region of South Ossetia last week in an effort to reassert Georgia’s sovereignty.

U.S. officials have called Russia’s response disproportionate because its forces did not just expel Georgian troops from South Ossetia, but drove deep into Georgian territory and bombed Georgian targets.

Russian leaders most likely were responding not only to Georgia’s military operation but to actions by neighbors and Soviet-era allies over a number of years.

“I think this was aimed much more to the West, more to Ukraine, Central Asia and the other Caucasus states,” said Sarah Mendelson, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I worry that any country in the region, such as Ukraine, that has been tilting towards the U.S., may now think twice. They may lean back a bit toward Russia.”

For years, Moscow could do little but fume as NATO courted and enrolled Russia’s former Soviet allies as members. But now, with its economy resurgent because of high oil and gas prices, and NATO and the United States preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia’s relative power in the region has grown.

“For 3 1/2 centuries, Russia has dominated its neighborhood,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Russia is “throwing a gantlet down, saying that there isn’t going to be any more NATO enlargement.”


So far, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has granted membership to the three former Soviet Baltic republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Former Warsaw bloc countries from Poland in the north to Bulgaria in the south also have become members.

Georgia and Ukraine had been hoping to gain candidate status at a NATO meeting in December. But recent events in Georgia may make NATO members and even the two countries themselves think twice.

“The Russian argument is: ‘We are a great power. This is our sphere of influence. Just because the Soviet Union collapsed does not mean that NATO can expand on our border,’ ” Stent said.

Russia has sought to use other issues to reassert its sphere of influence, including objecting to NATO’s plans to install missile defense radars and interceptor missiles in Eastern Europe and objecting to the West’s recognition of the independence of Kosovo, formerly a separatist region of Russian ally Serbia.

But Russia hasn’t gotten what it wanted in these cases. The conflict in Georgia has drawn attention to its priorities in a new way.

“I think that American officials and analysts -- and I would put myself in this boat -- underestimated the scope of the Russian reaction to Kosovo’s separation from Serbia,” Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a conference call.


“The Russians at the time said that they may well retaliate by stirring up trouble in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and I think many people said, ‘Well, that’s going to be mostly talk.’ In fact, they’ve gone ahead and done it.”

In addition to reasserting Russia’s regional preeminence, the incursion into Georgia also demonstrated the United States’ relative weakness.

Janusz Bugajski, author of a forthcoming book on Russia’s relations with its neighbors, said Washington’s lack of forceful response sends a chilling message to nations that had been relying on the U.S. to counter Russia’s power.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “is demonstrating to the rest of the world that the United States is not the sole superpower any more. Or if it is, it’s so stretched that it’s not going to come to your aid,” Bugajski said. “That weakens the U.S. position globally quite a bit.”

U.S. protestations over Russia’s incursion into Georgia probably would strike Russians as hypocritical, coming from a nation that invaded Iraq -- a country not even on its borders, Stent said.

Even if the United States resists the idea, it’s possible that a resurgent Russia is ready for a new geopolitical rivalry in which powerful countries compete politically and militarily.


“I think it’s not inappropriate to put this conflict in the context of a ‘great game,’ ” Kupchan said. “There is still a battle going on for influence -- Western influence vs. Russian influence -- in the Caucasus and in the southern borderlands around Russia. And clearly I think as a result of this conflict Russia will probably feel that it has taken a step forward in maintaining a ‘sphere of influence.’ ”