The geopolitics of Russo-American relations is best portrayed by an old Swahili proverb that says ‘when the elephants fight, the grass gets crushed, and when elephants make love the grass gets crushed’.
In that way, post-Cold War rapprochement between Washington and Moscow allowed the latter to brutally crush Chechnya and for Putin to neutralise political dissent with little opposition from Washington.
It also allowed the Pentagon to use Moscow’s military bases in the former republics of the Soviet Union for various aggressive operations and paved the way for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the other hand, renewed tension and conflict between the old Cold War nemeses has opened the way for the destruction and mayhem in Georgia. If continued, it will lead to a deterioration of the situation in the Middle East and trigger or escalate conflicts and arms races around the world.
Who started it?
While the bullying of smaller, weaker countries has been a feature of the international system since communities organised into states, it is imperative to determine who started the war in Georgia in order to chart where this conflict is heading.
Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, blames the Russians for starting the war by amassing great military power on the border in the beginning of August while he was in Italy.
But many reckon the ambitious pro-Western Georgians started the military escalation and timed it as international media attention was focused on the Olympic games in Beijing.
Saakashvili’s “foolishness”, says the Economist, has backfired.
But “Did Washington purposely encourage an irresponsible and unpredictable regime in this misadventure?” to use the rhetorical question of Sergy Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
The answer, according Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, is an emphatic yes. He believes Saakashvili “would not have dared to attack without outside support”.
If Washington’s support for Saakashvili was aimed at cornering Putin, Russia’s retaliation against Georgia has bloodied George W’s nose. After less than a week of fighting, Russia won the day and began withdrawing troops.
Shocking, hardly surprising
The swift deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow over the latter’s military intervention is shocking, but hardly surprising.
Their ‘marriage of convenience’ has been strained for some time now.
Last summer’s casual summit at Kennebunkport, Maine, marked a turning point as Putin and Bush sent the relationship into deep freeze. Heated disagreement over the deployment of the controversial Missile System in Eastern Europe and over Ukraine and Georgia’s membership of Nato at the Alliance’s Bucharest summit last April, have all but paved the way towards open conflict.
Despite Russia’s swift but tough retaliation against Georgia, the Bush administration reiterated its commitment to Tiblisi’s membership of Nato and signed the strategic agreement with Poland that allows for deploying what it considers “defensive” and Moscow deems “offensive” missile systems.
Although the Bush administration was not capable of deterring Russia’s retaliation/invasion and force it to withdraw unconditionally, its strategic commitments to Eastern Europe and Georgia and its refusal to allow Russia to join Nato’s military exercises in the Mediterranean have all but reinstated the Cold War calculus.
Soul-mate … to checkmate
Theirs was presumably a love at first sight. But it feels like a lifetime since Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and was able to get a sense of his soul.
The two had reportedly gotten along well. So much, that Bush had more chemistry with the ex-KGB head than with his ally, Tony Blair.
But as in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, smooth talk and sophisticated mannerisms only hid plots and counterplots.
When Bush tried to lecture his Russian host, yet again, about democracy during the 2006 G8 summit, Putin took a direct jab at the US president: “We certainly would not want to have same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, quite honestly.”
At that time, the US were six years into the Afghanistan war and three years into Iraq’s; the US was growing insecure because of the loss of its strategic capital and financial prestige around the world.
In the meantime, the robust and confident Russian leadership under Putin benefited from higher oil prices and grew bolder vis-à-vis the Bush administration’s foreign policies.
While the ridiculing of the macho Texan did not go down too well, Bush’s need for Putin’s help with a number of strategic challenges around the world stretching from North Korea to Iran helped defuse tensions.
But the personal chemistry had all but vanished.
And now, Georgia’s miscalculated adventure gives the ultranationalists and Cold War romantics in Moscow and Washington the alibis to escalate the rhetoric and eventually break off the engagement.
As he considers his next move, Bush might be entertaining the idea of dealing a final blow to Russia’s relationship with the West before leaving office and paving the way to a McCain presidency.
If tensions continue to escalate, expect further deterioration of the arms race around the world and especially in the Middle East region where Cold War-type apprehension could only lead to further polarisation of existing regional conflicts.
Russia, which has long criticised American/Israeli military sales and support for the Georgian army, might supply Syria, Iran and others with advanced armaments to balance America’s $50 billion commitment of arms sales to Israel and Saudi Arabia, among other client states.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Moscow this week might come in handy in this regard.
Though for many of us outside Europe the Cold War was pretty hot, some long for the bipolar system because of the Bush administration’s abuse of its power in a uni-polar world.
Putin’s nostalgia is evident as he grows more powerful within Russia and more feared in neighbouring countries. He is frequently quoted to have said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century”.
But while for Putin, the Warsaw alliance is no more, the US is exploiting the Georgian tragedy to reinvigorate the Nato alliance and solidify its leadership at the helm.
Since the end of the Cold War (without a single shot), Nato has gone through a major identity crisis with Europe becoming an ever hesitant partner.
Thanks to the Georgian crisis, Washington no longer needs to plead with its wary European partners to expand and strengthen Nato as they tried disparately during their April summit in Bucharest.
During the Cold War, Nato had a much defined European mission to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.
For all practical purpose, Washington will insist on this definition but will also try to expand it worldwide under the guise of confronting terrorism and rogue states.
MARWAN BISHARA is Al Jazeera’s Senior Political Analyst.