At a dinner for Western experts and journalists on Sept. 9, President Vladimir Putin of Russia issued a stern warning over impending Western moves to grant a form of conditional independence to Kosovo.
He said that Russia would use any such move as a precedent for solutions to the existing "frozen conflicts" in the Georgian autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are under de facto Russian military protection, just as Kosovo is under NATO protection.
Georgia’s arrest last week of four Russian officers on suspicion of spying, and Moscow’s furious reaction, underline the grave dangers stemming from the Georgian-Russian tension over these territories.
This is a warning that the West should take extremely seriously. It was in marked contrast to the conciliatory tone of President Vladimir Putin’s other remarks on this occasion.
Moreover, the situation in the Southern Caucasus is already heating up. In November, South Ossetia is to hold a referendum on independence. This vote has not been formally recognized by any other state but is causing considerable anger in Georgia, which has recently carried out a number of small-scale military actions on the borders of South Ossetia.
Thanks to U.S. military aid and advice, the Georgians for the first time since independence have a small but well-trained and equipped army. Their desire for an early recovery of the breakaway republics has been encouraged by certain U.S. politicians, including Senator John McCain.
With U.S.-backed Georgian forces on one side, and Russian-backed Abkhaz and Ossetes on the other, the stage may be set for an armed clash with grave repercussions extending far beyond the Caucasus, and affecting above all the future of the Middle East.
As a kind of comical subplot to this potential tragedy, Western and Russian officials are scurrying around seeking evidence that their respective positions on the various disputes represent "international law." The comedy lies in the fact that in modern times there has rarely been a more obvious case of legal pots and kettles all round.
Western governments have one approach to Kosovo, a completely different one to the Georgian conflicts, a third to Nagorno-Karabakh, a fourth to Palestine, and so on, in each case trumpeting their adherence to "universal principles."
As for Russia, the difference between Moscow’s attitude to Abkhaz rights and to those of its own autonomous republics hardly needs elaboration.
In these circumstances, aiming at universal legal rules is hopeless. Instead, both Russia and the West should aim at what Cardinal Richelieu defined as the ultimate goal of all diplomacy, namely "a community of reason," shaped not by legal but by rational and moral constraints.
The central imperative should be to cause the least possible further harm. This argument also stems from the philosophy of ethical realism, originally formulated by the great 20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others.
An ethical realist approach to the frozen conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus is based on two perceptions. First is the recognition that in the end, the future of these disputes will depend chiefly not upon law but upon power.
In Kosovo, predominant power lies with NATO and the Kosovo Albanians. In the Georgian separatist republics, predominant power lies with their own ethnic majorities and with Russia.
Second is the recognition that to overturn these existing realities would require new wars, and avoiding this is the chief duty of all the international participants. Such proxy wars between East and West were an inevitable but horrible aspect of the Cold War, and should have ended with that conflict.
The Kosovo Albanians will never accept re-incorporation into Serbia, and appear likely soon to launch a movement for full independence. Abkhaz and Ossetes will never accept reincorporation into Georgia.
In all three cases, internationally guaranteed de jure or de facto independence can be accompanied by limited partitions that will allow existing ethnic Serb and Georgian parts of these regions effectively to rejoin their ethnic motherlands.
The United States, European states and Russia should all be prepared to press such agreements on their respective clients. Such a solution for the Georgian conflicts will doubtless seem unacceptable to legalists and moralists in Western governments.
Before they adopt stances that may encourage new fighting, however, they need to ask themselves two questions: The first is whether it is really worth risking the worldwide consequences of even an indirect U.S.-Russian clash for the sake of Georgian rule over South Ossetia, a place that is totally irrelevant to the vital interests of the United States.
The second is whether these Westerners are prepared to risk their own priceless lives in any future Caucasian war.