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Russia is a roomy place, spanning 11 time zones and 70 degrees longitude from east to west. No nation has a yard so wide or so deep.

But as big as it is, Russia also covets many of its neighbors’ lots, which they view as congruous to their own, according to Robert B. Brannon, a Russian-Soviet expert who teaches at the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany.

"Russian military doctrine approaches geography in a different way than we do," Brannon said in a telephone interview. The conflict in Georgia "is not an ideological struggle. It’s all about national security."

In short, Russia, more than any other country, equates space — and a lot of it — with security, said Brannon, who served three years as the American naval attache to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The Russian military incursion into Georgia demonstrates the Kremlin’s resolve to control what is sometimes referred to as "the near abroad." In Russian, the term is "nashi," which literally translates to "ours."

"We don’t try to influence Canada, for example, to the extent that Russia tries to influence a place such as Georgia," Brannon said.

Moscow moved into Georgia late last week after the latter attempted to reclaim the breakaway province of South Ossetia from Russian-backed separatist forces.

"Russia is feeling strong and it wants to demonstrate that it has influence in this near abroad," Brannon said. "This is all about control."

And it cuts both ways.

By driving deep into Georgia, which reclaimed its independence from Moscow in 1991, Russian leaders are out to embarrass their Caucasus neighbor to the south by showing it doesn’t have control over its own territory. Brannon characterized the Georgian play for South Ossetia as "a reckless move" that played into the Russians’ hand.

But while the West may see an aggressive Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin feels embattled and encircled, said Sergei Markov, the director of Moscow’s Institute for Political Studies, who has close relationships with officials in the Kremlin.

"Russia is in an extremely dangerous situation," trapped between the obligation to protect Russian citizens and the risk of escalating into "a new cold war" with the United States, Markov said, according to The New York Times.

"Washington and the administration are playing an extremely dirty game," the paper quoted him as saying. "They will show Putin as an occupier even if Putin is doing nothing."

Brannon explained that the presence of U.S. military trainers in Russia’s backyard has been a tremendous source of irritation to its leaders.

"This rankles them," Brannon said. "They want us to get out."

Asked why he thinks the Georgian military decided to reclaim South Ossetia now, Brannon said he can’t figure it out.

"You don’t throw rocks at a sleeping dog," Brannon said, "and that’s what they have done."


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