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Georgian conflict reveals Moscow's biggest fear

How remote is the former Soviet republic of Georgia to most Americans?

Here's one measure: I recently received an e-mail from a viewer wondering if this Georgia was where our Georgians (as in our Carolinans or our Virginians) originally came from.

Silly, perhaps, but the comment raises a serious concern. It's true that, as the six-day conflict in Georgia - followed by a week of shaky cease-fire - unfolded, each dateline became more exotic, and unfamiliar, than the last: Tbilisi, Gori, Poti, Tskhinvali.

Every day, our dispatches tried to answer the questions we all seemed to be asking: why had a phalanx of international reporters parachuted into Georgia to cover spiraling violence in a breakaway region? Why - at the very height of hype and excitement about the Beijing Olympic Games - had so many of us come to witness what started out as just another ethnic skirmish in the Caucasus?

Of course, there was the obvious, quick answer: This war, like previous proxy wars, was really about what you could not see - or report.  What kept your adrenalin pumping in the wee hours of the morning: that primal fear of a military - even nuclear - confrontation between Russia and the United States.

Fears of the mushroom cloud

That Cold War anxiety is something that some of us are old enough to remember – the proverbial mushroom cloud on the horizon.

It's a fear we didn't talk much about, but which grew as we watched Russia attempt to redraw its battle lines with the West. And it's that collective fear, I believe, that kept the Olympics a distant second or third on most news programs during that week.

Even after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a cessation of hostilities (saying Georgia had been sufficiently punished for its attack on South Ossetia, an enclave recognized by the U.N. Security Council as Georgian) and after U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, in effect, that the United States would not engage Russia militarily, that primal fear just wouldn't go away.

But now, with the hot war behind us, will the tinderboxes of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - the other Georgian breakaway enclave - become distant, frozen conflicts yet again?

Not likely.

On Tuesday, Medvedev said Moscow had recognized formally the independence of both pro-Moscow territories. The decision, which is not likely to be followed by many other countries, further escalates tensions with the West and puts the Kremlin in direct opposition with the U.N. Security Council. President Bush had previously issued a statement warning Russia against recognizing the two separatist regions.

Both Medvedev and his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have upped the ante, saying that Russia could deal with any Western attempt to isolate it and that breaking off ties with NATO was - in so many words - not the end of the world.

Gauging the risk

Some analysts suggest that Russia is trying to re-establish itself as a superpower, starting in its own backyard. If that's true, it would seem it's going to do so by driving a wedge between it and the rest of the world.

But why would the Kremlin risk that kind of isolation, not to mention international ire, over two tiny enclaves that have been fighting the ethnic Georgians for decades?

A fight for the oil pipelines is one answer.

By absorbing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia puts even more pressure on Georgia's BTC pipeline, one of the few that transits oil through the Caucasus that is not under Russian control.

Then, take a look at Vice President Dick Cheney's itinerary next week.

The White House says he's bringing a show of support to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine on a trip that had, as its origin, a conference in Italy.

These three former Soviet republics all have pro-Western and anti-Russian leaders. All three countries signed a preliminary deal last year to extend a Ukrainian pipeline to move Caspian oil from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea, and then on to the West - again, outside Russian control.

War against an idea

But is this really all about oil? Would Russia and Georgia - and by extension, the United States - go to the very brink and back over energy? As Russian forces begin pulling out of Georgia and reporters like myself regain some distance from the front lines, another answer comes to mind. The one thing that triggers Kremlin fears more than anything else: democracy.

Democracy's basic ingredients, the freedom to assemble, to speak, to choose - these are like kryptonite in the hands of the Kremlin's authoritarian mega-capitalists.

How often have we heard it from Russia's crushed opposition voices? Medvedev and Putin don't want a war with the West, because their clothes and expensive watches are Western, their vacations are taken there, their yachts are made there, and their children and the children of their cronies want to be educated there. No, their war is with an idea - democracy.

Look at the new geopolitical map that's redrawing itself in the wake of the Georgia conflict - with the United States, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics and Israel on one side. On the other is Russia, Belarus, Syria and Iran.

More than a war of power, or energy, this lays out the Kremlin's battle zone against democratic forces that - if unleashed in Russia - could destroy it. In fact, Georgia marks the new Cold War frontline between Russian autocratic rule, and democracy's Ground Zero.

Russia doesn't really fear or hate NATO. It knows very well that NATO is not the threat. The threat to Putin-ocracy - and the real threat from Georgia - is the close proximity of Western freedoms to Russia's very borders.

Russia, remember, had freedom in the 1990s, and almost drowned from too much of it. Putin and his hand-picked successor, Medevedev, won't allow that to happen again, even if it means going to war.

That's why we were in Georgia, reporting from towns with unpronounceable names, en masse. That's why the story - for a few scary days - blew away the Olympics. And that's why a simmering primal fear mixes with fascination.


Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union extensively since the Cold War.