Georgia Is Medvedev's First Foreign Policy Test

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Whether by a calculated design or an unintended chain of events spinning out of control, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev will have a foreign policy crisis on his hands when he officially takes office on Wednesday.

The crisis over Abkhazia and South Ossetia will test Medvedev's leadership in foreign affairs. He will need to make a strong show of force and prove that he can defend Russia's interests and lives no less forcefully than his predecessor did.

The crisis, however, comes at a delicate moment and raises the question of whether it is purposefully intended to narrow Medvedev's field of options when dealing with the West after the inauguration.

In mid-April, right after the NATO summit in Bucharest, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree establishing legal and economic ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The decree also increased Moscow's humanitarian and economic assistance to the breakaway republics.

Although coming short of the formal recognition, the moves signaled that Russia no longer viewed the two territories to be under Georgia's sovereignty.

Georgia protested the move and major Western powers raised their concerns with Moscow. They even tried to reverse the decision in a news release at the United Nations Security Council meeting two weeks ago.

Russia's recent moves in the Caucasus are clearly intended as a veiled threat to dissuade Georgia from accepting NATO membership -- if you join, you will lose Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By the same token, the Kremlin wants to escalate the territorial conflict to dissuade NATO from offering membership in the first place. Many within NATO already question whether the alliance should rush to assume responsibility for Georgia's security.

The Russian action, however, gives the Georgian leadership an incentive to provoke a Russian military response. This tactic was on display two weeks ago when Georgia deliberately sent a reconnaissance drone into Abkhazia's air space and blamed Russia for shooting it down.

Moscow responded last week by announcing that it was sending additional peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia, a move that prompted U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to register her concerns with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a meeting in London on Friday.

Before all hell breaks loose, Medvedev will have to apply the brakes to Russian moves in the region, while Washington and Brussels need to dissuade Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from flirting with war as a tactic to win parliamentary elections on May 21.

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF Group, a government relations and public relations company.