On Aug. 7, Georgia launched a military operation to take control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Russia responded by sending tanks and jets to defend the region's population, many of whom align themselves with Russia and have Russian passports.
Both presidential contenders issued brief statements on the conflict on Aug. 8. McCain, a Republican from Arizona, called directly on Russia to "cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from the sovereign Georgian territory." He said the United States should convene an emergency session with the U.N. Security Council "to call on Russia to reverse course" and gather the North Atlantic Council to review Georgia's security and measures NATO should take.
Rather than assigning blame, Obama, an Illinois Democrat, condemned the violence in Georgia and said, "Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full-scale war. Georgia's territorial integrity must be respected. All sides should enter into direct talks on behalf of stability in Georgia, and the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community should fully support a peaceful resolution to this crisis."
As the conflict continued, the candidates addressed the issue again on Aug. 11, with Obama strengthening his stance on Russia's actions: "No matter how this conflict started, Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and invaded another country." He again called on the United States, Europe and other countries to unify in condemning "this aggression, and seeking a peaceful resolution to this crisis."
McCain also sharpened his tone, saying no matter what tensions existed before the fighting began, "they in no way justify Moscow's path of violent aggression. Russian actions, in clear violation of international law, have no place in 21st century Europe."
Russia, for its part, said it was carrying out its peacekeeping mission in the region and that it was Georgia's actions that violated international law. "In accordance with the Constitution and the federal laws, as president of the Russian Federation it is my duty to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they may be," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Sally McNamara, senior policy analyst in European Affairs at The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, said McCain's response to the outbreak of violence was "more robust and confrontational in taking on the Russian bear."
She said a McCain presidency would be tougher on Russia than the Bush administration has been with its policy of engagement, and "far tougher" than Obama, judging from his statements so far.
McCain's criticism of Russia pre-dates the conflict in Georgia. During a March 26 speech on foreign policy, McCain urged a strong transatlantic relationship with NATO and the EU to, among other things, address "the dangers posed by a revanchist Russia." He went as far as recommending the expulsion of Russia from the G-8, a group of eight major industrialized nations that meet annually to discuss topics of mutual concern, such as health, terrorism and the environment.
The prevailing attitude in Russia is that Republican administrations have a better relationship with Russia, said Anna Vassilieva, professor and Russian studies program head at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. But McCain's position to drop Russia from the G-8 and later his reaction to Russia's show of force in Georgia demonstrated that he would depart from that tradition, she said.
"Russian commentators are saying his approach to Russia is very short-sighted and lacking the nuance and understanding of Russia's position," she added.
Russian commentators' views of Obama are more neutral, Vassilieva said, because they don't know what to expect, though she pointed out that Stanford University professor Michael McFaul is Obama's senior adviser on Russia, and he "has been consistently harsh on political developments in Russia."
But because of a lack of balanced analysis of Russia in the U.S. media, which created the image of an authoritarian Russia emerging as an enemy to the United States, Vassilieva said, politicians are facing a dilemma. If they engage Russia, they run the risk of being misunderstood by their electorate, but if they play up to the media's portrayal of Russia, they face the danger of a disengaged Russia not acting as a partner to the United States, she said.
"My hope is that whatever administration comes to the White House in November, that administration will be able to set up priorities for the United States, first and foremost, and Russia as a partner in the interest of United States' national security," said Vassilieva.
No matter who enters the White House, changes are afoot in U.S.-Russian relations, according to McNamara. Russia clearly prevailed in the case of Georgia, she added, and is now "weighing the pros and cons of how aggressive they can be" in terms of troop strength in the region.
Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, said the challenge for the next administration is to find the right balance between engagement and confrontation, using the full range of diplomatic tools. And the next president should strive to create a unified front with Europe, the European Union and other countries -- before a similar conflict arises, rather than afterward, he said.