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Russia's big Caucasus win

Moscow has gained leverage, threatened Georgia's pro-West leader, and bolstered national pride.

By Staff writer, Correspondent / August 14, 2008

SOURCES: Associated Press, Reuters, and Human Rights Watch/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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PARIS and Moscow

In less than a week of military operations sparked by Georgia's assault on its breakaway province of South Ossetia, Moscow is emerging as the immediate winner. A still-stunned West is looking for ways to censure Russia for its "disproportionate" incursion into Georgia that has reshaped the strategic game in the Caucasus and beyond to Russia's great advantage.

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"If the Russians stop hostilities now, they will have redrawn the whole strategic situation in the Caucasus, to the detriment of the Americans," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "No one will invest in Georgia, in oil pipelines, in new ventures [there] now.... The game is over. In the new version of the Great Game, the Russians can cash in." The scope of the "victory" is substantial: Moscow controls territory and leverage, has incapacitated the Georgian military, denied Tblisi its much-hoped-for NATO status, and put the Georgian leader it despises – Mikheil Saakashvili – into a tough position.

It has issued a symbolic warning to Ukraine's westward leanings, asserted clout in oil and gas pipeline futures, denied Georgia the possibility of reclaiming breakaway provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and affirmed a deeply Russian set of hard-line political values regarding the disputed front lines of the old cold war.

Moreover, by agreeing to halt its military on Tuesday, working with French mediator Nicolas Sarkozy, and only "recommending" that Mr. Saakashvili step down, Moscow is arguing it has reasonably protected its interests and not overthrown a sovereign state.

Moscow also appears to be slam-dunking the cease-fire details. The truce, which Saakashvili blamed Russia for breaking Wednesday, contains a "nonuse of force" clause that forbids Georgia to take action inside South Ossetia, a terrific concession. Nor are international peacekeepers coming soon; Russia gained an "additional security role" that formalizes its peacekeeping role in South Ossetia despite US calls for a more independent force in the region.

Russia is pushing for international talks on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which could lead to eventual backing of referendums that would allow those republics to formally separate from Georgia.

A quick tabulation: impact of Georgia conflict

Georgia's NATO bid: With secure borders and political stability as membership requirements, NATO is unlikely to admit Georgia soon.

Saakashvili's position: Georgians have publicly rallied behind him, but grumbled about his failed bid to reclaim S. Ossetia.

Oil and gas: Developers from Central Asia and the Caspian will likely face pressure from Moscow to use Russia instead of the South Caucasus bypass route.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Tbilisi wants to reclaim the ethnic breakaway regions, but a Russia-backed referendum based on the Kosovo precedent could make this impossible.

Ukraine: Russia's push into Georgia sends a message of "who's in charge" to those in this key state who wish to integrate with the West.

Russia is "back": Natalya Narochnitskaya of the Russian Institute of Democracy and Cooperation says that Russia "has a renewed national and state will.