09/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Return of the Evil Empire?

Empires die hard. The war that broke out last week between Russia and Georgia is a terrifying reminder that the disintegration of the Soviet Union is far from over.

Seventeen years ago, it looked as though that region might escape the worst consequences of imperial collapse. After all, the Baltic states achieved their independence with relatively little bloodshed. Ukraine and Russia -- despite serious disagreements over oil, the Black Sea fleet, and minority rights -- more or less managed to sort out their differences peacefully. Elsewhere, however, struggles over borders, political control, and resources convulsed the former Soviet Union, and the body count rivaled the horrors taking place in Yugoslavia.

Even before the official collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan began fighting over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Tens of thousands died in the civil war that began in 1992 in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan. Tens of thousands more died in the conflict between the Russian federation and the break-away province of Chechnya. In a war pitting Russian-backed separatists in Transdniestra against the new Moldovan government, another 1,000 people died. The former Soviet Union was on the verge of splitting into hundreds of bloody pieces.

Georgia, a small country bordering the Black Sea and sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, was not immune to this violence. Two regions bordering Russia -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- declare independence in the 1990s. Thousands died in the two conflicts, which pitted Russian-backed separatists against the Georgian government, and both regions managed to achieve de facto independence. But there is an important difference between the two struggles. Abkhazian separatists engaged in large-scale ethnic cleansing to make their parastate, which previously had a plurality of Georgians, more ethnically pure. South Ossetia, meanwhile, remains a diverse region with some villages aligned with the separatists and others with Tbilisi.

In the latest violence, which broke out just as the Olympics were getting under way in Beijing, Georgian military forces launched an offensive to regain control of South Ossetia. Russia struck back with an air offensive that has forced the Georgian military to retreat but at the cost of at least 2,000 lives, many of them civilians.

Russia, and particularly its dour Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has emerged as the chief villain in this drama. International leaders have condemned Moscow for its attacks. According to the new Cold War narrative that has begun to take shape, Russia is attempting to recapture some of the glory of the Soviet empire through economic pressure, political arm-twisting, and, when all else fails, military means. Dying empires are bad enough, but states that try to turn back the clock -- like Germany or Hungary or Turkey after World War I -- can be even worse.

Beware of this updated version of the black-and-white Cold War picture. While the new Russia has indeed done some terrible things -- particularly in Chechnya -- it has also played an important role in diminishing some of the worst aspects of the post-Soviet violence. After the mid-1990s, this region had become a patchwork of ceasefires and "frozen" conflicts, thanks in part to Russia. It helped mediate the end of the civil war in Tajikistan. It's been involved in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the third of Georgia's separatist struggles -- in Ajaria - Russia helped to mitigate the conflict by agreeing to close its military base (albeit after some international pressure). Russian peacekeepers in pro-Russian breakaway regions -- Transdniestra, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia -- are clearly not neutral third parties, but they have also contributed to keeping the peace.

Yes, Russia's response to Georgia's attack is unjustifiable. It acted unilaterally and with disproportionate force. One of its objectives is to disrupt the only oil conduit in the region -- the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline connecting Azerbaijan fields to Western Europe -- not under its control. But this is not old-style Soviet arrogance. Nor is it an attempt to reconstitute the Soviet empire. Rather, Russia is simply following the lead of the world's only superpower in pursuing its national interest at gunpoint. Unlike the United States, though, Russia confines its operations to its "near abroad" rather than attempting to project power in far-off lands. And, again unlike the United States, Russia has ended hostilities quickly so as not to get caught in a quagmire.

Georgia, meanwhile, is far from the good guy in this drama. From the Bush administration's point of view, Georgia gets a free pass because it sent a contingent of troops to Iraq, has been eager to join NATO, and has been the recipient of U.S. and Israeli military aid. But the central government has been intolerant and aggressive in dealing with minority groups and populations. The current government of Mikheil Saakashvili cracked down hard on peaceful demonstrations last November. And Tbilisi's most recent attempt to reabsorb South Ossetia -- something even Serbia has not done with Kosovo -- was the proximate cause of the current violence.

The breakup of Yugoslavia is over, with the rather peaceful secession of Kosovo. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, is still with us, in all the hot and cold wars that continue along ethnic and political fault lines in the region. U.S. policies designed to contain Russia - through NATO expansion or the construction of missile defense -- only exacerbate the problems. When will the Cold War die-hards in the United States decide to work with Russia rather than against it in order to finally bury the ghosts of the Soviet Union and bring peace to that great swath of Eurasia?

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Reposted from Foreign Policy in Focus