Question: What’s at the core of this conflict?

Trenin: The core of the conflict is ethnic Ossetian nationalism versus Georgia’s national unification. The roots go back many decades. In the current form, the conflict dates back to 1990 when the Soviet Union was breaking up.

There was a brief war in 1992, stopped by the arrival of Russian forces, which have been acting as peacekeepers ever since. By 2004, tensions had calmed down appreciably, but (Georgia President Mikhail) Saakashvili used force to try to establish control (over regions still loyal to Russia), which led to violence and a deterioration of the situation. In the past several months, tensions and violent attacks had been mounting.

At another level, Russia’s relations with Georgia soured as a result of Tbilisi’s bid to join NATO. The combination this spring of the Kosovo independence and NATO’s promise to admit Georgia led to a serious spike in Russo-Georgian tensions. So, when Saakashvili sought to resolve the conflict by force on August 7, he was met with an armed response from Russia.

Q: Could it spread?

Trenin: The conflict has already spread to Abkhazia, the other unresolved conflict in Georgia. Adjacent areas inside Georgia proper, and some Georgian military installations across the country, have been affected. There has been also “collateral damage” through bombing misses, with Georgian civilians killed.

Russia, however, has halted its advance deep inside the Georgian territory. The capital, the pipelines and the ports and airports are essentially safe.

Q: What does this portend for U.S.-Russian relations?

Trenin: This conflict does not bode well for the U.S.-Russian relationship. Too early to tell how exactly these will be affected: This is for the new U.S. administration to decide, but a chillier and more competitive era is clearly dawning.

Q: What does this portend for other former Soviet territories and Eastern Europe?

Trenin: The Georgian conflicts and Tbilisi’s NATO bid were one of three looming crises in U.S.-Russian relations, all centered on Central and Eastern Europe.

The other two are Ukraine’s NATO bid and the U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. I expect more trouble as these potential conflicts mature.

Q: What are you watching for most closely as an indicator of whether this situation will stabilize or tip into more instability?

Trenin: Europe, if it managed to take a united and independent stand, could play the part of a peacemaker, ensuring stability and strengthening cooperation in the continent’s east. However, both unity and independent action on Europe’s part are unlikely.

So I would watch the developments in Ukraine over NATO and in Central Europe over the missile defenses, and Russian reactions to both with intense interest and apprehension. The most important factor, however, will be the Russia policy of the 44th president of the United States.