Following a series of provocative attacks in its secessionist region of South Ossetia late last week, Georgia launched an all-out attempt to reestablish control in the tiny enclave. Russia then intervened by dropping bombs on Georgia to protect the South Ossetians, halt the growing tide of refugees flooding into southern Russia, and aid its own peacekeepers there.
Now, the story goes, Russia has at last found a way of undermining Georgia's Western aspirations, nipping the country's budding democracy, and countering American influence across Eurasia. But this view of events is simplistic.
American and European diplomats, who have rushed to the region to try to stop the conflict, would do well to consider the broader effects of this latest round of Caucasus bloodletting – and to seek perspectives on the conflict beyond the story of embattled democracy and cynical comparisons with the Prague Spring of 1968.
Russia illegally attacked Georgia and imperiled a small and feeble neighbor. But by dispatching his own ill-prepared military to resolve a secessionist dispute by force, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has managed to lead his country down the path of a disastrous and ultimately self-defeating war.
Speaking on CNN, Mr. Saakashvili compared Russia's intervention in Georgia to the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. Russia has massively overreacted to the situation in Georgia. It has hit targets across Georgia, well beyond South Ossetia, and has killed both Georgian military personnel as well as civilians. The international community is right to condemn this illegal attack on an independent country and United Nations member.
But this is not a repeat of the Soviet Union's aggressive behavior of the last century. So far at least, Russia's aims have been clear: to oust Georgian forces from the territory of South Ossetia, one of two secessionist enclaves in Georgia, and to chasten a Saakashvili government that Russia perceives as hot-headed and unpredictable.
Regardless of the conflict's origins, the West must continue to act diplomatically to push Georgia and Russia back to the pre-attacks status quo. The United States should make it clear that Saakashvili has seriously miscalculated the meaning of his partnership with Washington, and that Georgia and Russia must step back before they do irreparable damage to their relations with the US, NATO, and the European Union.
The attack on South Ossetia, along with Russia's inexcusable reaction, have pushed both sides down the road toward all-out war – a war that could ignite a host of other territorial and ethnic disputes in the Caucasus as a whole.
The emerging narrative, echoing across editorial pages and on television news programs in the US, portrays Georgia as an embattled, pro-Western country struggling to secure its borders against a belligerent Russia. Since coming to power in a bloodless revolution in late 2003, Saakashvili has certainly steered a clear course toward the West.
The EU flag now flies alongside the Georgian one on major government buildings (even though Georgia is a long way from ever becoming a member of the EU). The Saakashvili government seeks Georgian membership in NATO, an aspiration strongly supported by the administration of George W. Bush. Oddly, before the conflict erupted on its own soil Georgia was the third-largest troop contributor in Iraq, a result of Saakashvili's desire to show absolute commitment to the US and, in the process, gain needed military training and equipment for the small Georgian Army.
Russia must be condemned for its unsanctioned intervention. But the war began as an ill-considered move by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force. Saakashvili's larger goal was to lead his country into war as a form of calculated self-sacrifice, hoping that Russia's predictable overreaction would convince the West of exactly the narrative that many commentators have now taken up.
But regardless of its origins, the upsurge in violence has illustrated the volatile and sometimes deadly politics of the Caucasus, the Texas-size swath of mountains, hills, and plains separating the Black Sea from the Caspian.
Like the Balkans in the 1990s, the central problems of this region are about the dark politics of ethnic revival and territorial struggle. The region is home to scores of brewing border disputes and dreams of nationalist homelands.
In addition to South Ossetia, the region of Abkhazia has also maintained de facto independence for more than a decade. Located along Georgia's Black Sea coast, Abkhazia has called up volunteers to support the South Ossetian cause. Russia has now moved to aid the Abkhazians, who are concerned that Georgia's actions in South Ossetia were a dress rehearsal for an attack on them.
Farther afield, other secessionist entities and recognized governments in neighboring countries – from Nagorno-Karabakh to Chechnya – are eyeing the situation. The outcome of the Russo-Georgian struggle will determine whether these other disputes move toward peace or once again produce the barbaric warfare and streams of refugees that defined the Caucasus more than a decade ago.
For Georgia, this war has been a disastrous miscalculation. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are now completely lost. It is almost impossible to imagine a scenario under which these places – home to perhaps 200,000 people – would ever consent to coming back into a Georgian state they perceive as an aggressor.
Armed volunteers have already been flooding into South Ossetia from other parts of the Caucasus to fight against Georgian forces and help finally "liberate" the Ossetians from the Georgian yoke.
Despite welcome efforts to end the fighting, the Russo-Georgian war has created yet another generation of young men in the Caucasus whose worldviews are defined by violence, revenge, and nationalist zeal.