Quite a few articles I recently read about Russia talk about Russia being nostalgic for its empire and trying to get it back. Yet I don't see any sign of that in Russia's foreign policy. Rather I see a Russia that is concerned about the Russians and Russian citizens outside its border.
This is in line with how other former empires behave:
- After its borders had been set in World War I Turkey didn't fight to expand them (they got Hatay peacefully in 1939), except when it felt that Turkish citizens on Cyprus were threatened.
- Similarly when Yugoslavia broke apart Serbia only fought were it believed its ethnic group to be threatened.
- Hungary didn't even have the power to fight for its ethnic group after World War I as it was too small.
- Germany took on the case both of its own former citizens and the Germans from the Habsburg Empire after World War I. In the end things got out of hand with Hitler. But Hitler's empire was something new, not a restoration of the Habsburg Empire.
We live in the time of the nation state. Having other ethnic groups inside your border only gives trouble. So it should come as no surprise that those former empires don't wish to restore their old borders.
In this light the Western support to Georgia is very harmful. Even if the Georgian attack had succeeded it would have done nothing to stop "Russian imperialism" for the simple reason that there is no more Russian imperialism. What it did was greatly increasing Russia's worries about its citizens in the other republics. About 1700 were killed and the West basically supported this. The only result is a more nervous Russia that next time may take preventive action.
Having a big former empire as neighbour is not always fun. Specially not when it claims to speak for some of your minorities. Old reflexes may occasionally arise: the former empire may feel superior and the small neighbour that was formerly ruled by the empire may feel intimidated. But when the smaller countries try to form alliances against the former empire that mainly hinders the development of normal relations. We have most recently seen that in former Yugoslavia. External interference in conflicts usually leads to grandstanding and a lack of desire to compromise.
For that reason I think we should not Russia's crying semi-neighbours too seriously. I can understand that Estonia feels a bit uneasy after the Russian military action in Georgia. It will make them conscious of their adversarial policy towards their Russian minority. But I don't think that there is a need to give them extra assurances.