Ukraine is Key to U.S.-Russia Geopolitical Rivalry

Even small wars can act as watersheds. The most recent one in the caucasus has marked the end of an era in which Moscow sought, with waning intensity, to fit itself into a common security system with the West, while the West, trying to "engage" Moscow, was mostly managing Russia's decline. Now Russia is on the rise, and while its move into South Ossetia was triggered by the reckless and brutal actions of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, its real target was Washington and the growing American presence along Russia's borders.

The United States' plans to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and to build a missile defense system in Central Europe have pushed Russia to go beyond ineffective protests and take action.

Moscow views NATO's new arrivals—unlike the established members—as little more than U.S. satellites, ready to act as platforms to launch American armed forces. With more such platforms appearing closer and closer to Russian borders, Moscow's concerns have been growing. Russian strategists don't dispute the U.S. claim that the planned missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic would not threaten Moscow's strategic nuclear deterrence. Yet, as an element of the U.S. global ballistic-missile defense system, they raise the specter of a decapitating first strike. This may be paranoia, but Moscow's confidence in the United States these days matches Washington's trust in Russia.

Where do we go from here? Georgia will pose an ever-present danger of an armed conflict for years to come. Moscow views Georgia much as the West once viewed Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, and it wants to see Saakashvili removed, and in jail. The Kremlin hopes for the emergence of a Georgian Vojislav Kostunica (the moderate transition figure who followed Milosevic in Serbia), followed eventually by a Russian-leaning leader. Whatever happens, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are lost to the Georgian state, with no final settlement of either conflict likely for decades.

To counter U.S. moves in missile defense, Russia will step up its military rearmament, redeploy some of its forces and strengthen the defense alliance with Belarus. It is Ukraine, however, that moves into the center stage of the new geopolitical rivalry. No Russian leader could have failed to respond to a direct attack on Tskhinvali. But, more ominously, no Russian leader can remain in power if he "loses" Ukraine to the United States as a member of NATO. The fractiousness of Ukrainian politics, with its constant maneuvering and double-crossing, offers Moscow a host of opportunities unavailable anywhere else. More important, the divisions within Ukrainian society over religion, language, its World War II experience and attitudes toward Russia are so sharp that an invitation to join NATO may trigger unprecedented domestic instability. As a vocal minority in western and central Ukraine is cheering NATO as a security guarantee against Russia, a more passive majority, mainly in the east and south, still regards Russia as "part of the family." For or against NATO could well become the principal slogans in the 2009 presidential campaign in Ukraine and potentially serve as a pretext for outside involvement. Moreover, in the post-Kosovo world, the issue of Crimea, with its two-thirds Russian majority, is coming to the fore and may ignite a future crisis. One possible tipping point comes in 2017, when the Russian lease on its naval base in Crimea expires: Moscow has vowed to keep the base, but Ukraine wants the Russians out.

A few days into the war in the Caucasus, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked the United States to make a choice between "real partnership with Russia" and Washington's "virtual project" in Georgia. In response, the Bush administration has made a decision to punish and contain Russia. While the Kremlin is looking forward to a globally diminished America, the Washington consensus holds that a resurgent, revanchist Russia must be stopped before it is too late. Both America and Russia will appeal to Europe seeking, respectively, to unite or divide it against the other party. The resulting struggle will be the most severe test yet of Europe's ability to define and defend its interests and principles. It will be a crucial test of Russia's tentative efforts to modernize its economy, which is already losing momentum as the Kremlin mobilizes against security threats. Not least of all, it will be a test for the next U.S. president, who will need to add Russia to the long list of America's problems in the world.

The much-overused cold-war analogy is fundamentally wrong: ideology is not part of the new equation. Moscow's problem is not Georgia's (very imperfect) democracy; it does not mind Finland's much more mature version, and has learned to use Ukraine's political pluralism to its advantage. The present conflict is about the geopolitics of the former Soviet space, which Moscow seeks to free from U.S. power, and about the world order, which Russia wants to rid of U.S. domination. The gauntlet is down. Even as America is scrambling to react, and Europe is torn, China, Iran and many others are watching with a keen interest. A new era is dawning.