In the aftermath of Russia's incursion into Georgia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev articulated a five-point program for Russian foreign policy, the central element of which is Moscow's supposed right to intervene in other states at will in order to defend Russian citizens abroad. This idea is inherently dangerous for not just regional, but global stability.Russia's doctrine of extra-territoriality places a landmine under the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nearly every CIS state. It's not surprising then that other states in the region, along with regional organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States, have been less than enthusiastic in supporting Russia, especially over Moscow's decision to recognize the independence of Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Right now it's possible to say that Russia is dizzy with success. It is clear that Moscow wants a free hand to act in its near-abroad in somewhat the same way Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has become accustomed to operating without any restraint in Russia's domestic political and economic arenas. The international community simply cannot agree to Russia's wishes in this respect.
One can say Putin's Kremlin is so intent on proving that it is once again a world power -- avenging old scores and perceived slights -- that it is putting the country's domestic prosperity at risk. Thanks in large part to the spike in energy prices, the Russian economy in recent years experienced robust growth. But the Kremlin's Georgia adventure helped precipitate a crisis of confidence among foreign investors, causing Russian stocks to fluctuate wildly. The market is now wobbling and the government was forced to pledge roughly $120 billion to shore up shaky banks. Then, along came the US market meltdown to heap an additional element of uncertainty on the Russian economy. Now, the prospects for the Russian economy are decidedly murky. Putin & Co. must realize that being a bully is bad for business.
If Moscow doesn't soon come to its senses, big problems could result. Russia is in danger of becoming caught up in a vicious cycle of its own making. The more it demands a sphere of influence in the CIS, the more some CIS states will be frightened and act to defend their sovereignty in ways that angers the Kremlin. Russia's behavior since August has only heightened anxiety in many CIS states, even among some of Moscow's traditional friends, such as Armenia. The use of fear can work for a while, but it is never a sound, long-term tactic.
One of the less noticed aspects of the Russian-Georgian war is that Russia's authoritarian structure continues to be a source of insecurity because it fosters a recurring temptation to military adventurism. The Georgia incursion pulled back the curtain for a brief moment on Russia's decision-making machinery, and it showed what many foreign experts had long-thought to be the case: that the president of the country is not in charge. Indeed, it is Putin who continues to call the shots, operating outside of any checks or balances on his behavior. It seems that there is no one within Putin's inner circle who can tell him: "no." This can only make leaders in other CIS states extremely nervous.
Events in the Caucasus and elsewhere are continuing to move in an alarming direction. The longer Russia's occupation of Georgia goes on, the prospects for future violence there will grow. And the possibility of new instances of violence is not limited only to Georgia. If reports are accurate that Moscow is distributing passports in Crimea, the chances of trouble in the near future between Russia and Ukraine will rise to disconcerting levels.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.