Page last updated at 21:02 GMT, Tuesday, 26 August 2008 22:02 UK

Assertive Russia poses problems

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Sukhumi residents celebrate Moscow's recognition of Adkhazia's independence, 26 August, 2008
Washington condemned Moscow as Abkhazia residents celebrated

Moscow's decision to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has drawn near-unanimous condemnation from key western governments , but there is little in practice they can do to reverse the situation.

Indeed, full ramifications of this crisis have not yet played out, and they could be considerable.

This is the most profound crisis in European security since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

In many ways it could be more serious, since US and Russian interests are today more directly opposed than they were then.

Serbia, while backed by Moscow, was not on Russia's periphery and was in no sense a vital security interest for the Russians.

Russia did not like the West's backing for Kosovo's secession from Serbia, but there was little Moscow could do about it in immediate terms.

Immediate condemnation

The current crisis is about supremacy in Russia's back-yard.

And the West's guiding rhetoric about a Europe "whole and free" is directly opposed by Moscow's determination to assert itself in its near-abroad.

Condemnation of Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence has been immediate.

Crafting a new collective policy towards this newly assertive Russia will take time

But the prospect of the West's rhetorical attacks was not enough to dissuade Russia from its Georgian military adventure in the first place.

It subsequently was not enough to force a Russian withdrawal. And it is hard to see Russia now going back on its decision to recognise these two separatist enclaves.

Beyond rhetoric, the West is struggling to find levers to pull to gain traction in Moscow.

That has been the story since the outset of this crisis.

Western governments know that for all the talk, economic steps could bounce back to hurt them.

Crafting a new collective policy towards this newly assertive Russia will take time. It will require a clear American lead.

And there is always the danger that divisions within both the European Union and Nato will make any collective policy merely the lowest common denominator of conflicting views.

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