The Russian-Georgian conflict may have marked a turning point in international relations. In highlighting Russian challenge to American primacy and Washington's limits of power, it may be bringing to an end the world order that existed from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until today.

During the past 20 years or so, world affairs were characterised by the virtually uncontested primacy of the United States.

The collapse of the traditional counterweight to American power made it possible to wage war against Iraq, weaken the Palestinians, pressure North Korea, accelerate the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, and wage war against Serbia in the late 1990s.

American influence reached the very borders of Russia and recruited former republics of the Soviet Union into Euro-Atlantic organisations, in part to ensure that Russia remained permanently weakened.

More recently the absence of Russia as a counterweight to the United States was so significant that opposition to the 2003 Iraq war at the UN Security Council came not from rival Russia, but from friendly France.

Invigorated by a booming economy, a modernised military, and an assertive leadership, Russia warned against what it saw as the provocative Euro-Atlantic push eastward and the threatening proximity to Russian borders of a Western military alliance.

Russia asserted national interests not only to respond to what it saw as provocations, but also to extend its reach beyond its borders and defend its citizens in the so-called near abroad - the former republics of the Soviet Union.

The Russian response to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia was designed to send a message not only to the former Soviet republics but also to Washington. As Ted Carpenter put it in the American Conservative, what Russia wants is not world empire-just respect.

Diplomatic recognition

Moscow also decided to extend diplomatic recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In accepting the French President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to withdraw Russian troops from Georgia by mid-October, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reiterated that the decision to extend diplomatic recognition to the two breakaway regions was "irreversible" - a clear challenge to Washington's support for Georgia.

Washington's strategic involvement in the region is largely driven by the desire to gain access to the oil and gas-rich Caspian region.

To protect and advance these interests, the weakening and isolation of Russia is considered indispensable for the projection of unchallenged American power in the region.

A US State Department document highlights "the considerable strategic importance to the United States of: the Black Sea region. We now have three Nato Allies bordering the Black Sea: Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria."

If the Bush administration has its way and Ukraine and Georgia become Nato members, the Black Sea, once Soviet waters, will be American waters, surrounded by five Nato members. Russia will be reduced to rely on its Black Sea naval port in Sevastopol - another potential area of conflict in unfriendly Ukraine.

It is to challenge the drive to isolate and weaken Russia that Russian leaders responded forcefully to the conflict with Georgia, and articulated a foreign policy doctrine aimed at setting limits to American power.

"We cannot accept a world order in which all decisions are taken by one country," Medvedev recently announced, "even such a serious and authoritative country as the United States of America... This kind of world is unstable and fraught with conflict."

The Bush administration's response to the Russian challenge has been contradictory. Initially, it seemed to accept responsibility for its role in the conflict. On August 18, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States "would not push for Georgia to be allowed into Nato".

Then in early September, Bush sent his notoriously confrontational vice president, Dick Cheney, to the region where he pledged support for admitting Ukraine and Georgia into Nato. He also, significantly, met with senior executives of British and American oil companies operating in the region.

Notwithstanding the decision to send American war ships to deliver 'aid' to Georgia, the Bush administration seems to have come to the sobering conclusion that its power is not without limits.

"After considerable internal debate," the New York Times recently reported, the Bush administration "has decided not to take direct punitive action against Russia for its conflict with Georgia, concluding that it has little leverage..."

Adel Safty is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Novosibirsk, Russia.