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The International Herald Tribune - August 27, 2008 This is where things stand nearly three weeks after Russia invaded Georgia and radically upended ties with the West: Russian troops still occupy key areas including the port of Poti; Moscow has recognized the independence of Georgia's two breakaway regions; Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is still talking tough even though his army is routed and his country shattered. And if that isn't unnerving enough, President Bush has decided to dispatch Vice President Dick Cheney, that master of diplomacy, to the region. Awash in oil wealth and giddy after crushing tiny Georgia, Russia's leaders are striking back at real and imagined humiliations. The West's failure to fully marshal its leverage is painful to watch. But Russia also has a lot to lose. Moscow's decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia will only harden battle lines and sow further regional instability. Recognizing these enclaves could inspire a host of rebellions around and inside Russia: Transdniester from Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan and the oil-rich province of Tatarstan from Russia. If Moscow has forgotten its horrifying war to suppress the Chechens, we have not. We know some in the Kremlin don't care if ties with the West are broken. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the dark hand behind Russia's aggression, blustered this week that Russia would be better off if it didn't join the World Trade Organization. While many Russians are cheering him now, we doubt that they will be eager to return to the grim days of Soviet isolation. For all its oil wealth, Russia is still a poorly developed, corrupt and fragile state. It is not in its long-term economic and security interest to divorce from the international mainstream. The Bush administration deserves considerable blame for letting this crisis get so far out of hand. Since the invasion, it has deftly bolstered Georgia, using military transports to deliver humanitarian aid. It gets mixed marks for its response to Russia. The White House eagerly used the crisis to seal a missile defense deal with Poland - adding to Putin's list of resentments. It also, more sensibly, suspended military cooperation and a civilian nuclear deal worth billions to Moscow, but left the door open for reviving both. We do not know what Cheney will say when he visits Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Italy next week. The last thing the world needs now is him inciting more resentments and anxieties. Georgia's president certainly seems to have learned nothing from the last few weeks, telling The New York Times that he would continue his campaign to reassert Georgian control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He seemed to think that Washington would back him up. A blustering visit from Cheney would also make it far easier for the Europeans to avoid doing what they need to do: send their own clear message to Moscow that there will be no business as usual. That does not mean completely isolating Russia. But when the Europeans meet next week, they should agree to put on hold a trade and security deal with Moscow so long as it continues to occupy Georgia and threaten its neighbors. Ties between Russia and the West are now the worst in a generation. It will take toughness and subtlety to ensure they do not lock into a permanent confrontation - not more bluster from anyone.

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