09/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

U.S. and Russia Lock Horns

PARIS - When some witty author writes a history of silly, unnecessary crises, the recent fracas in the Caucasus between too-big-for-its-britches Georgia and angry Russia will occupy a prominent place.

What began as a tempest in a teapot in an obscure locale few people had ever heard of has now turned into a major confrontation between the US, its NATO allies, and Russia.

Georgia's reckless attack on the secessionist Russian-backed enclave of South Ossetia; Moscow's swift, deadly riposte against Georgia, an American protectorate; and the Bush administration's overheated reaction have combined to produce a nasty and alarming crisis.

A crisis, as this column noted two weeks ago, that certainly seems to have been engineered by the White House, or at least launched with US backing for domestic political reasons. The US and Israel were training and arming the Georgian armed forces. American money financed Georgia and paid for its arms purchases. US and Israeli advisers were embedded at battalion level with the Georgian Army. CIA and Mossad were heavily represented in the Georgian capitol, Tbilisi.

It is inconceivable that Georgia's attack on Russian-backed South Ossetia could have begun without a green light from Washington. Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, now openly blames Washington for what he calls an attempt to boost John McCain's political fortunes by creating a jolly little crisis in the Caucasus. Even Barack Obama was forced onto the jingoistic bandwagon by calling on America to fight `Russian aggression' in his electrifying speech in Denver.

But this empty posturing and gasconading is fraught with potential dangers. The US has no ability at all to defend Georgia in a war. US and NATO warships are delivering supplies to Georgia, uneasily watched by vessels of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. US aircraft and military personnel are flying into Georgia close to Russian airspace. The US Congress may soon vote $1 billion for America's embattled Georgian satellite.

The US and other western powers are resorting to fierce Cold War rhetoric, accusing Russia of aggression and imperialism. They are playing with fire. Russia has some 6,600 strategic nuclear weapons mostly aimed at North America and Europe.

Besides, the US, which invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, not to mention Panama and Haiti, and whose air force, according to UN observers, just killed 90 Afghan civilians, 60 of them children, is hardly in a position to lecture Moscow about morality.

France's conservative president, Nicholas Sarkozy, blasted Russia and will hold a European summit over Georgia in Brussels on September 1st.

Poland just agreed to emplace a US anti-ballistic missile system only 184 km from Russia's border, provoking Moscow's fury. Imagine America's reaction if Russia emplaced an anti-ballistic system outside Montreal. Ukraine and Poland are loudly backing Georgia. Ukraine threatens to oust Russia's Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet, or shorten its lease there that runs to 2017.

Russia's chief of staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, warns his nation has the right to launch a "preemptive nuclear strike" against enemies, in line, he tartly noted, with the Bush administration's own policies of preemptive warfare.

Topping off this war of words, two of Sen. John McCain's closet allies, hawkish Republican senators Joseph Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, went to Georgia and called for `tough' measures against Moscow. They urged isolating Russia for "aggression" and admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO.

McCain's allies provide a preview of what his foreign policy may look like. Lieberman and Graham, leading proponents of the US occupation of Iraq, had the chutzpah to proclaim, "Russia must not be allowed to control energy supplies."

This ugly mess recalls the way the great powers blundered into both World War I and II over two obscure locales: Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Danzig Corridor. Extreme caution is clearly advised before the crisis gets out of hand. But few are listening as rhetoric sharpens.

This crisis over a mere 70,000 South Ossetians and 18,000 Abkhazians could have been quietly resolved by diplomacy. Instead, the Bush administration, furious its ham-handed attempts to expand US influence into Russia's backyard had been thwarted, turned it into a major confrontation.

Washington, which rightly recognized the independent of Kosovo's Albanians from Serb repression, denounced Russia's recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence from Georgian repression. However, hypocrisy was not limited to the western powers. Moscow claimed it was merely defending the right of the Abkhaz and South Ossetians to independence. This from Russia which crushed Chechnya's struggle for independence and killed a third or more of its population in the process.

Now, the US is pressing Ukraine to join NATO, though half of its 48 million citizens oppose doing so. Ukraine's constitution mandates a neutral state. Russia allowed Ukraine to decamp from the Soviet Union with the understanding it would never join NATO, and would allow Russia's Black Sea Fleet to operate from Crimea.

Russian political expert Sergei Markov notes that Washington and NATO see Ukraine as a rich new source of troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, lost wars from which he says NATO leaders cannot admit defeat and then withdraw their soldiers without committing `political suicide.'

"Old Europe" is trying to avoid a clash with Moscow, while "new Europe" - Georgia, Poland, the Czechs, and Balts - frightened of Russia's growing power, urges the US to confront Russia.

Not only did the Bush administration's latest foreign adventure backfire badly, Washington's childish, petulant response is as inflammatory as it is powerless. The Georgian crisis and empty threats against Russia have aroused strong nationalist passions in Russia, which sees itself increasingly isolated and surrounded by the US and NATO. The west's behavior in this ersatz crisis has encouraged the very Russian hardliners that we have been deploring.

Nationalist hysteria, jingoism, and fevered rhetoric are coming from both sides. Such lunacy has been seen before: in August 1914, and September 1939. We are not facing a world war yet, but the elements for conflict are certainly in place.