MOSCOW – The struggle over a tiny, impoverished part of the Caucasus mountains has erupted into a widening confrontation between Russia and the West, the worst since the Soviet Union collapsed.

The rift between Russia and the former Soviet state of Georgia over South Ossetia, a hilly land the size of Rhode Island, threatens a web of institutions spun since the end of the Cold War to tie Moscow to the U.S. and Europe. One by one, the strands holding the web together are fraying.

Even if the cease-fire holds in Georgia, the consequences of the crisis could be grim: Tensions might jeopardize Russian energy shipments to Europe, cut the U.S. off from access to the International Space Station, end intelligence cooperation between Washington and Moscow in the war on terrorism.

Western leaders are mulling expelling Moscow from the Group of Eight club of wealthy nations and denying it membership in the World Trade Organization.

Beyond denying Russia the privilege of participating in an alphabet soup of international groups, the escalating rhetoric threatens to resurrect the ugliest aspect of the Cold War: the doomsday brinksmanship between Russia and the West.

Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a top Russian officer, said Friday that Poland’s agreement to accept a battery of U.S. missile interceptors has put Poland at risk of attack, perhaps with nuclear weapons, the Interfax news agency reported.

Arms control in danger

The Russian foreign minister, meanwhile, warned that the Kremlin might halt cooperation on efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

The Georgia conflict also could jeopardize several arms control agreements, including the Nunn-Lugar Comprehensive Threat Reduction act, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Russia for destroying, dismantling and securing its nuclear weapons.

Some U.S. lawmakers see risks to U.S.-Russia cooperation on the International Space Station, which could spell disaster for the program. After the U.S. space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, Russia’s Soyuz rockets will become the only way to get to the station for several years.

Brewing for years

Others members of Congress are proposing a resolution urging that Russia be stripped of its role as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

During much of the 1990s, a poor, divided and chaotically led Russia depended on loans and handouts from the West. As it regained strength, particularly on the back of rising oil prices, Moscow felt its role as an international player was being insulted or ignored.

The West was slow to condemn the erosion of Russia’s embryonic democratic institutions, as President Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister, methodically restored the Kremlin’s role as the center of power.

The Sept. 11 attack on New York and Washington united the West and Russia in what both regarded as a struggle against global terrorism. But the partnership soon soured for several reasons – including overtures to join Western blocs by Georgia and another former Soviet state, Ukraine.

Still, the world is not the same as during the Soviet era. Russian companies and tycoons now have ties around the globe – a steel mill in Baltimore, nickel mines in Canada and Botswana, mansions in London. Russia’s trade and investment abroad could act as a brake on its actions.

Padma Desai, director of the Center for Transition Economies at Columbia University, feels the sides will find a way to live together. “We will always have to bargain with them because they will always be a major geopolitical power,” she said.

Douglas Birch is Moscow bureau chief for The Associated Press.

AP-ES-08-15-08 1749EDT

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