NATO's thinking is understandable. Given that an action plan for Georgia's membership in NATO is no longer a priority, canceling the exercises would be seen as the "surrender" of Tbilisi and a great triumph for Moscow. Georgia is already extremely disturbed by the world's abrupt loss of interest in it, so a show of symbolic support would help save face.
The Kremlin's position, too, is explainable. Holding major military exercises in what was only recently a war zone-a zone with political problems yet to be resolved-hardly helps the situation. Still fresh in everyone's memory are the Georgian-American "Immediate Response" exercises of last July, which were followed, by a strange coincidence, by the march on Tshinvali.
Is this conflict threatening to spawn new complications? With respect to relations between Russia and NATO, it is possible. Temperature manipulation - "chilling," "thawing," "warming," "freezing"-is becoming an end in itself in contacts between Moscow and the alliance. True, it has no practical consequences, and the taking of steps is symbolic. What is of substance in interactions with NATO, namely Afghan transit, is not touched. That transit, incidentally, is being built on a bilateral basis, on Moscow's agreements with Berlin, Madrid, and Washington, and not with the bloc headquartered in Brussels. It is still unclear what cooperation with NATO, an organization that has yet to define its new identity, will mean.
For NATO, the exercises in Georgia are also part of an agenda that is slipping away. Expansion stalled as soon as it met real resistance. No one is ready to take risks for the sake of multiplying the number of member countries. And the alliance will have to understand what relations are possible with neighboring countries anxious to join.
Symbols are, of course, important for the general atmosphere. But, judging by signals from Washington, the Obama White House is more focused on solving specific problems. And since Russia is considered useful on some fronts (Afghanistan, Iran, the START Treaty), that is where the emphasis will go. Washington's calm reaction, for instance, to the closing of the U.S. airbase at Manas in Kirghizia is an example of the prevalence of pragmatism over emotion.
True, symbols have a habit of adding up, and their quantity becomes quality. Therefore, it's better to react with restraint to the countless "landmines," lest the form of international relations crowd out the content.
Fyodor Lukyanov is editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Politics magazine.
First published in Kommersant
All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.