As the Russian bear plunges its claws into the heart of its much smaller neighbor Georgia, few outside the region seem to appreciate the danger posed by Moscow's latest aggression. While many might have difficulty finding Georgia on the map, that in no way detracts from the significance of the situation. Israel and the West would be making a grave error if they merely shrug and issue a few perfunctory press releases in response to this perilous development.
How this crisis plays out will have a direct impact on the ability of Israel and the US to confront an even greater menace that lies just around the corner - Iran and its stubborn drive to build nuclear weapons.
Here's why: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is testing the West's mettle. He senses weakness, and is using the conflict with Georgia, a close ally of Washington, to see to what extent the US and Europe will stand up for their friends and their own interests.
In recent years, Russia has become increasingly assertive on the international stage, frequently seeking to undermine Western policy. From North Korea's nuclear program to Kosovo's drive for independence from Serbia, Moscow has taken stances directly opposed to those of the US.
But the invasion of Georgia constitutes a serious escalation, as Russia is no longer confining its mischief to the realm of diplomacy.
THE SMALL Caucasus nation has been an outspoken friend of Washington, steadfastly supporting the war on terror and maintaining a sizable troop presence in Iraq. Just four months ago, at a summit in Bucharest, NATO agreed to invite Georgia to join the alliance. By raping Georgia in public, Putin is thumbing his nose at the entire Western alliance.
So far, the success of his little experiment has been clear. Putin pounces on his neighbor with abandon, violating Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity and indiscriminately bombing innocent civilians with little more than ineffectual expressions of outrage from Paris, London and Washington.
Ostensibly, the Kremlin claims it is merely acting to protect the large Russian population that lives in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it is easy to see through the smoke screen of Russian propaganda. For one thing, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili agreed over the weekend to a cease-fire and began withdrawing his country's troops from South Ossetia.
That didn't stop Putin from pressing forward with disproportionate attacks, as Russia sent armored columns deeper into Georgian territory.
Moreover, it is hard to take Russia's claims seriously, if only because of their transparent hypocrisy. When the province of Chechnya sought to break away from Russia, Moscow refused to countenance the idea and instead bombed the region into submission. But when South Ossetia and Abkhazia seek to secede from Georgia, Russia chooses to defend their right to do so, despite the glaring contradiction in Moscow's stance.
Russia is motivated by one principle alone: the pursuit of its own interests - even if that means storming an internationally recognized border and threatening to bring down the democratically elected government in Tbilisi.
This can not be allowed to stand. Russia's move into Georgia will have ramifications far beyond the Caucasus. It will send a shiver down the spines of decision-makers in countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, all of whom might now think twice before deepening their romances with the West.
And if allowed to go unanswered, the attack on Georgia will strengthen Russia's resolve to further undercut key Western interests.
THAT IS where Iran comes into play. The ayatollahs are glued to their television screens, waiting to see how the West responds. After all, in recent years Moscow has stood by Iran's side in the face of mounting Western pressure. Russia has been supplying Iran with materials for its nuclear program. And the Kremlin is planning to ship advanced anti-aircraft systems to the Iranians that are aimed at making it harder for Israel or the US to take out their nuclear installations.
While Moscow has thus far voted in favor of three UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Teheran, it has only done so after it succeeded in watering them down and delaying their implementation.
But a newly emboldened Russia will prove to be even more troublesome when it comes time to confront Iran and stop its drive toward nuclear weapons.
If Putin sees that the West is a paper tiger and allows Georgia to be trampled, then he likely will not hesitate to block additional Western efforts to strip Iran of its nuclear ambitions. An atomic Iran, Putin realizes, would further expose the powerlessness of the West, as well as heighten its sense of vulnerability. Consequently, he may be tempted to defy the West yet again, on an issue even closer to its heart, in an effort to push the envelope.
The ayatollahs know this all too well, and will be encouraged to continue their mad drive for atomic power, confident in the knowledge that they have little to fear.
It is therefore essential that strong and immediate measures be taken to punish Russia for its Georgian adventure and strip it of any illusions it may have about a lack of Western resolve. These might include moving quickly to bring Georgia formally into NATO, suspending Russia's membership in the "Group of 8" leading industrialized nations and freezing talks recently launched with the European Union on a new EU-Russia agreement.
Whatever course is decided upon, Moscow must be made to pay a heavy economic, political and diplomatic price for its actions, lest it persist in causing still greater harm.
As the crow flies, the road from Tbilisi to Teheran is more than 1,100 kilometers long. But if the West now fails to act, it may soon find that the distance between the two is far less than it imagined.