The Russian war aim in Georgia, inasmuch as it may be discerned after a bare 48 hours of full combat, appears to be what I said it likely is: “the Russians [will] fully occupy South Ossetia, along with the other secessionist region of Georgia, Abkhazia; declare them both independent or somehow annexed; and thoroughly punish the Georgians with a countrywide air campaign targeting what meager infrastructure there is.” As if to swiftly confirm the hypothesis, we see today that the Abkhazians have joined the war, thus opening a second front against the Georgians. Quite nearly everything that can go wrong for the Caucasian republic has: Georgian forces have been fully ejected from South Ossetia; Russian troops are landing on the Abkhaz coast (it’s unclear whether at Sukhumi or Ochamchira); Russian air power is hitting strategic targets throughout Georgia; and at this writing — just after dawn in the Caucasus — a general Russian offensive may be underway.
Georgia’s American-trained armed forces may make it a fight, but there are only two things that will save the little republic now: it’s enemies’ forbearance, or America (and by extention, NATO) itself. It’s the latter that Saakashvili and the Georgians are appealing to now: the latter march in the Tbilisi streets to demand Western intervention; and the Georgian president somewhat histrionically declares, “If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” Herein lies the tragedy of this war, not just for Georgia, but for the United States and the West in general. Help for Georgia is not on the way, and it will not be. The NATO countries are bound to inaction by their existing commitments and the logic of their own actions — in Serbia.
The Russian assault upon Georgia is justified — inasmuch as it is justifiable — on the same grounds as the 1999 NATO assault upon Serbia. A national minority desired secession, pursued that end with violent means, and called in a foreign protector when its struggle went bad. That foreign protector had its own agenda, of course: naivete, ignorance and self-regard fueled the Western intervention in Kosovo; and Machiavellian revisionism fuels the Russian intervention in Georgia. It must be remembered that the former led directly to the latter. In this space several months back, I warned that Kosovar independence would provide “a pretext for Russian action against American allies,” specifically in the Caucasus. And so it did, with Vladimir Putin retaliating for Kosovar independence by setting in motion the events that led to the present war. The Clinton Administration architects of the original Kosovo policy in 1999, and the Bush Administration architects who acquiesced to its logical end in 2008, bear a heavy responsibility for the blood shed in Georgia now.
Still, the ultimate responsibility is Russia’s, which is now a plainly and violently revisionist power. No amount of Western naivete, ignorance and self-regard, nor Georgian blundering, could create this war without Russia’s will to strife. That will springs from multiple causes, some rooted in the nature of autocracy, and some rooted in the nature of the Russian national character; and it is directed toward the overturning of what is, for Russia, the central strategic outcome of the Cold War’s end. The late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, quoted in Wayne Allensworth’s The Russian Question, expresses the Russian sense of that outcome clearly:
The trouble is not that the USSR broke up — that was inevitable. The real trouble, and a tangle for a long time to come, is that the breakup occurred mechanically along false Leninist borders, usurping from us entire Russian provinces. In several days, we lost 25 million ethnic Russians — 18 percent of our entire nation — and the government could not scrape up the courage even to take note of this dreadful event, a colossal historic defeat for Russia, and to declare its political disagreement with it.
Here, then, the source of the popular resonance of Moscow’s claims that it attacks Georgia to protect its own, with the concurrent surge of Cossack and faux-Cossack volunteers into Ossetia.
As Russian revisionism’s armed expression slowly crushes Georgia, the states with the most historical reason to fear Russia look on with mounting alarm. This extraordinary communique from the Presidents of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, prompted by the Georgian war, denounces Russia’s “imperialist and revisionist policy in the East of Europe” with startlingly undiplomatic language. These nations are members of NATO and the European Union, and they look to their putative allies now to provide them with the protection and assurance that they expect. Thus we see the war in the Caucasus evolve into a litmus test for the basic institutions of the West itself. If those institutions fail, especially in the eyes of its most vulnerable members, then the suffering in Georgia will, in the long run, be mere prelude.