WASHINGTON - Russia has been justifying its rampage through Georgia as a "peacekeeping" operation to end the Tbilisi government's "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" of South Ossetia. That terminology deliberately echoes U.S. and NATO language during their 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, which resulted in the independence of Kosovo. Essentially, it's payback time for a grievance that Russia has borne against the West for nine years.

The Russians are relying on the conceit that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is today's equivalent of Slobodan Milosevic, and that the South Ossetians are being victimized by Tbilisi the way the Kosovar Albanians suffered under Belgrade.

This analogy turns reality, and history, upside down. Only after exhausting every attempt at diplomacy did NATO go to war over Kosovo. It did so because the formerly "autonomous" province of Serbia was under the heel of Belgrade and the Milosevic regime was running amok there, killing ethnic Albanians and throwing them out of their homes. By contrast, South Ossetia -- even though it is on Georgian territory -- has long been a Russian protectorate, beyond the reach of Saakashvili's government.

An accurate comparison between the Balkan disasters of the 1990s and the one now playing out in the Caucasus underscores what is most ominous about current Russian policy. Seventeen years ago, the Soviet Union came apart at the seams more or less peacefully. That was overwhelmingly because Boris Yeltsin insisted on converting the old interrepublic boundaries into new international ones.

Meanwhile, Yugoslavia collapsed into bloody chaos because its leaders engaged in an ethnically and religiously based land grab. Milosevic, as the best-armed of the lot, tried to carve a "Greater Serbia" out of the flanks of Bosnia and Croatia. If Yeltsin had gone that route, seeking to create a Greater Russia that incorporated Belarus and the parts of Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan and the Baltic states populated by Russian speakers, there could have been conflict across 11 time zones with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the mix.

A question that looms large is whether Russian policy has changed with regard to the permanence of borders. That seemed to be what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was hinting Thursday when he said, "You can forget about any discussion of Georgia's territorial integrity." He ridiculed "the logic of forcing South Ossetia and Abkhazia to return to being part of the Georgian state."

Lavrov is a careful and experienced diplomat, not given to shooting off his mouth. That makes his comments all the more unsettling. If he has given the world a glimpse of the Russian endgame, it's dangerous in its own right and in the precedent it would set. South Ossetia and Abkhazia might be set up as supposedly independent countries ("just like Kosovo," the Russians would say) -- but would in fact be satrapies of Russia. While Russia might see that outcome as proof of its comeback as a major power, the Balkanization of the Caucasus may not end there: Chechnya is just one of several regions on Russian territory that are seething with resentment against the Kremlin and that might hanker after a version of independence far less to Moscow's liking than what may be contemplated for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Among Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's important tasks in the days ahead is to get clarity on whether a Lavrov doctrine has replaced the Yeltsin one of 16 years ago. If so, big trouble looms. The fundamental premise of American policy has been that Russia has put its Soviet past behind it and is committed, eventually, to integrating itself into Europe and the political, economic and ideological (as opposed to the geographical) "West."

Prominent Russians have said as much. In one of my first meetings with Vladimir Putin, before he became president, he spoke of his country's zapadnichestvo, its Western vocation. Yet it now appears that beyond the undisguised animosity that Putin bears toward Saakashvili, he and his government regard Georgia's pro-Western bent and its aspiration to join two Western institutions, NATO and the European Union, as, literally, a casus belli. If that is the case, the next U.S. administration will have to reexamine the underlying basis for the whole idea of partnership with that country and its continuing integration into a rule-based international community.

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, wrote this article for the Washington Post.