Russia's coercion of its neighbors is a looming flash point for Europe and the United States, and President-elect Barack Obama. Autocratic Russia is bent on exploiting weak neighbors and reversing perceived humiliations since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The tragic war with Georgia last August showed that Russia is ready to use military power. International criticism and a plunging economy have apparently not swayed it.
On Dec. 24 President Dmitri Medvedev declared that his nation's "interests must be secured by all means available." Earlier he warned that Russia may deploy nuclear missiles against Poland, and has "privileged interests" in surrounding countries.
On Dec. 31 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin upped the ante. Ukrainian interference with Russian gas exports to Europe would lead to "serious consequences for the transit country."
Moscow is signaling a readiness to use hard power against smaller neighbors. Which ones might be next?
Since August, Russia has doubled its forces in Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Troops are only two dozen miles from Tbilisi and hover near Caspian energy pipelines and railways. Russian forces could take them at will.
If Kiev does not satisfy Moscow, Russia's military could move in to "protect" Ukraine's pipeline to Europe. Moreover, Russia is questioning Crimea's legal status, distributing passports to ethnic Russians there, and demanding retention of its naval base at Sevastopol, after the lease expires in 2017. Moscow seems to be developing pretenses for intervention.
Other potential flash points cannot be overlooked. Millions of Russians live in Kazakhstan, which has exceptional natural resources wealth. The country's leaders try hard not to displease Moscow, but they annoy the Kremlin by exporting some energy via the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan also have vast energy wealth but regimes that might be ineffective against a Russian challenge. Ominously, Russia recently announced formation of a new "international" military force for Central Asia.
Dependent on Russian markets and subsidized energy, Belarus seeks more aid from Moscow but may have to cede further autonomy. Moscow would intervene if another "color revolution" swept aside Aleksandr Lukashenko, the country's authoritarian ruler, and might annex Belarus, ending years of inconclusive discussions on union.
Russian use of force could threaten important U.S. and European interests. Gaining control over Caspian energy would jeopardize tens of billions of dollars of Western investment and heighten Europe's energy dependence on Russia. U.S. and European forces in Afghanistan will increasingly depend on ground-based logistics through Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
The West needs a two-part hedging strategy: a dialogue to encourage Russia to channel ambitions in less threatening ways, and steps to enhance the security of Russia's neighbors.
An economic dialogue should assist Russia to: mitigate the damage from economic crisis and facilitate recovery, enhance productive trade and investment, and seek fair energy relationships with others. In this context, Europe and the U.S. should encourage Georgia and Russia to negotiate restoration of transport and economic links, which would also benefit Armenia.
A security dialogue should address: full compliance with the armistice in Georgia, how Russia can protect its security while reassuring neighbors, and regional cooperation to counter transnational threats, such as nuclear terrorism and pandemic disease. This dialogue would complement U.S.-Russian strategic arms talks and the NATO-Russia Council.
Second, the U.S. and Europe should help Russia's neighbors develop defenses and protect critical infrastructure. Assistance should be conditioned on commitments not to invade separatist regions or project force abroad.
More frequent U.S. and NATO defense presence will also be critical. This may not require permanent basing, but should include more joint field exercises, secure and interoperable command and control, intelligence sharing, and pre-positioning of matériel. Neighbors alone cannot stop the Russian military. Moscow must come to fear all of the costs and doubt the success of any contemplated aggression.
Dialogue with Russia and better defenses in neighboring countries will help avert another war - and a flash point with the West.
Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at King's College London and a former European Commission ambassador to Georgia.
William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia.
Kenneth Yalowitz was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.