The global system of competition between rival power blocs has transformed the Caucasus – with its myriad of ethnic and historic rivalries – into a surrogate test of will between the US and Russia.
But the region also has strategic value, which has placed it at the centre of conflicts between superpowers in the past.
On Georgia’s southern borders lie Turkey and Armenia, a close ally of Iran. To the east is oil-rich Azerbaijan.
Georgia also lies on a key route between Russia and Central Asia.
If it became a full Nato member, with the increase in Western backing that would bring, it would pose a direct threat to Russia.
Western control of the region is important for reasons of both strategy and valuable resources.
The country is crucial for a variety of oil and gas pipeline projects. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline started operations in May 2005.
It runs from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, ending up on Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
Another oil pipeline runs from Azerbaijan to Supsa on Georgia’s Black Sea coastline. A third project – the Nabucco pipeline – is planned to run through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and on to Central Europe and Austria.
Russia dominates supply of oil and gas to many countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. But none of these new pipelines runs through Russia or countries in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Consequently they act to tip the balance of forces in the region away from Russia and towards rival powers in the West.
In a world dominated by competition between imperial blocs, such shifts can destabilise whole regions – and ultimately plunge them into war.