The situation on the ground in Georgia appears to be quieting, which is not the same as saying it has been resolved. The contested region of South Ossetia is more detached from Georgia; Russian “peacekeepers” inside the country have expanded in number and location. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to reassert his government’s authority in South Ossetia looks rash: he underestimated the Russian response, and he overestimated what the United States and others would do on his behalf. Both Senators McCain and Obama have been robust in their denunciations of Russian actions. But the fact is that there is little the United States can do to help Georgia. The real question is how the next president will deal with Russia come January.
Doing so will not be simple. Russia may no longer be a superpower, but despite its declining population, it remains a major power, one in a position to influence the opening decades of the 21st century. Russia possesses approximately half the world’s nuclear weapons, is the largest producer of natural gas and the second largest producer of oil, is a major exporter of modern arms, holds dollar reserves nearing $300 billion and, with its seat on the U.N. Security Council, is positioned to facilitate or frustrate a good deal of U.S. foreign policy.
Anyone questioning this last point need only consider Iran, which will undoubtedly present a major foreign-policy test during the first two years of the next administration. Iran is nearing the capacity to enrich uranium, the central ingredient of a nuclear weapon, on a large scale.