(Map: conflicts in the former Eastern Bloc, from the Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century)
It appears that Russia is angling for regime change in Georgia.
This makes one wonder: did the Russians look at the the precedent set by the US going for regime change in Iraq?
Another interesting question: how much is a result of the precedent of Kosovo? Russia strongly opposed Kosovo's independence. It seems likely to me that Russia decided to turn this precedent against the west, using it in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It will be at least a generation before the problems of the former soviet nations are sorted out, and Russia really is not playing a constructive role.
The situation in Georgia is different, of course. Whatever the problems of Saakashvili government, it democratically elected.
Whatever mistakes Tbilisi has made, they cannot justify Russia's actions. Moscow has invaded a neighbor, an illegal act of aggression that violates the U.N. Charter and fundamental principles of cooperation and security in Europe. Beginning a well-planned war (including cyber-warfare) as the Olympics were opening violates the ancient tradition of a truce to conflict during the Games. And Russia's willingness to create a war zone 25 miles from the Black Sea city of Sochi, where it is to host the Winter Games in 2014, hardly demonstrates its commitment to Olympic ideals. In contrast, Moscow's timing suggests that Putin seeks to overthrow Saakashvili well ahead of our elections, and thus avoid beginning relations with the next president on an overtly confrontational note.
Russia's goal is not simply, as it claims, restoring the status quo in South Ossetia. It wants regime change in Georgia. It has opened a second front in the other disputed Georgian territory, Abkhazia, just south of Sochi. But its greatest goal is to replace Saakashvili -- a man Vladimir Putin despises -- with a president who would be more subject to Moscow's influence. As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt pointed out Saturday, Moscow's rationale for invading has parallels to the darkest chapters of Europe's history. Having issued passports to tens of thousands of Abkhazians and South Ossetians, Moscow now claims it must intervene to protect them -- a tactic reminiscent of one used by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II.
Moscow seeks to roll back democratic breakthroughs on its borders, to destroy any chance of further NATO or E.U. enlargement and to reestablish a sphere of hegemony over its neighbors. By trying to destroy a democratic, pro-Western Georgia, Moscow is sending a message that, in its part of the world, being close to Washington and the West does not pay.
I have been increasingly annoyed by people repeating Russian talking-points. The narrative the Russia some sort of neutral peacekeeper in Ossetia is a fantasy. They were in the region under the auspices of CIS, merely a tool of Russian influence in the region. Clearly, what Saakashvili did was both stupid, and probably was given a false impression by talking to the United States. That can't justify the response which Russia has given, especially its attempt to change the regime in Georgia.
Zbigniew Brezinski has some thoughts on the subject.