Georgia appeared Sunday to have lost its bid to retake a breakaway territory in a brutal war that may lead to deep changes in the troubled Caucasus and pose serious obstacles to securing lasting rapprochement between a resurgent Russia and the West.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appealed for international mediation after Russia claimed full military control of South Ossetia's capital, which it invaded Friday after Georgia launched an assault on the rebel statelet.
Moscow, which says the assault killed 2,000 civilians and displaced 34,000, says it is fulfilling its peacekeeping mandate under 1992 accords that ended Georgia's civil war. But some analysts, including a former US diplomat, believe that Russia's true strategic goal may involve redrawing the map in its old Soviet spheres of influence.
"The Georgians were too quick to move, they rolled the dice to regain control. But that doesn't justify a [Russian] act of aggression and invasion to take the [Georgian] regime down," says Ronald Asmus, a former Clinton administration official responsible for NATO expansion. "This is a watershed in relations with Russia, comparable to the  Afghan invasion, since it is the first time they have sent troops illegally out of their borders."
There are two starkly opposed narratives concerning who started the war and why. Georgia, which said it had control of about 70 percent of South Ossetia on Friday, has called for a truce.
But Russia is still pouring troops and tanks into the disputed region. On Sunday, it mounted a naval blockade of Georgia's Black Sea coast, and its jets bombed the outskirts of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Experts say that much depends on Moscow's next steps as it moves to consolidate military control over South Ossetia.
"If Russia continues a massive attack through next week, its legitimacy as a neutral party will be harmed," says Sabine Freizer, European program director with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which warned about the gathering war clouds in a May report. "An ongoing attack of thousands of tanks and troops will certainly make Russia appear guilty in the eyes of the world."
Georgia seeks help in breakaway territory
Mr. Saakashvili, who has ordered full mobilization and declared a 15-day "state of war" in Georgia, told the BBC on Sunday that Russia's goal is to crush Georgia's independence and end its bid to join the Western NATO alliance.
He accused Russia of killing more than 300 civilians in bombing attacks around Georgia and begged the international community to compel a halt to what he characterized as a Russian invasion of sovereign Georgian territory.
"This is about the annihilation of democracy on [Russia's] borders," he said. "We, on our own, cannot fight with Russia. We want an immediate cease-fire and international mediation," he added.
The United Nations Security Council planned to meet Sunday for the fourth time in four days to agree on a statement. Both Russia and the US, which has strongly supported Georgia's bid for membership in the NATO military alliance against Russian warnings, are veto-wielding members of the council.
Analyst Alexander Rondelli, president of the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, says Russia's aim is to get rid of Saakashvili and show the world that they are "masters of the house.
Russia, on the other hand, depicts its involvement as a Kosovo-style "humanitarian intervention" aimed at protecting South Ossetia's Russian passport-holding population under its peackeeping mandate.
The Russian media has broadcast nonstop images of carnage in the embattled region, which it attributes to Georgian atrocities against the ethnically distinct, pro-separatist Ossetian population of an estimated 70,000 people.
(Under a 1992 Russian law, all former Soviet citizens have the right to apply for Russian citizenship, and the vast majority of inhabitants in South Ossetia and Abkhazia have since taken advantage of this.)
"Russia is not at war" with Georgia, defense ministry spokesman Anatoly Nagovitsyn told journalists in Moscow Sunday. "Our main goal is to stabilize the situation in South Ossetia."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Krasin, talking to journalists in Moscow Sunday, did not rule out peace talks but suggested that they would be difficult and could only begin when Georgia meets certain conditions.
"Russia wants troops returned to their 1992 positions," meaning the withdrawal of all Georgian forces from the territory of the Soviet-era autonomous republic of South Ossetia, he said. "The Georgian leadership should sign an obligation not to use force [in the future].... Without this, we cannot discuss the beginning of any talks."
There are growing hints, however, that Russia may be planning to use its military victory to permanently dismember Georgia. Russian officials are employing language uncannily similar to that used by NATO when it seized the Albanian-populated province of Kosovo in a 1999 war and then recognized its permanent break from Serbia earlier this year.
"The actions of the Georgian leadership in South Ossetia are a crime against their own people," said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who flew to the Russian republic of North Ossetia on Saturday. "There are elements of some kind of genocide against the Ossetian people. It's hard to imagine, after all that's happened, that they'll be able to convince South Ossetia to be a part of Georgia."
South Ossetia, which is ethnically linked to the more populous Russian province of North Ossetia, appealed to Russia's State Duma last year to be annexed to Russia. Abkhazia, a mountainous Black Sea enclave of about 200,000, depends on Russia for aid and protection but insists that it wants independence.
"Georgia has lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia forever," says Maxim Gunjia, Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister, reached by telephone in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. He says Abkhazia has fully mobilized its armed forces in expectation of a Georgian attack, and has mounted an operation to retake the disputed Kodori Gorge, presently occupied by Georgia. "After these events, it's impossible to speak about reconciliation. Georgia has shown its true face."
'New geopolitical competition' with Russia
Georgian experts urge caution about Russian claims of brutality against the Ossetians. "I know atrocities are always committed in any military action, but that can only be judged after the conflict by an independent team of investigators," says George Tarkhan-Mouravi, codirector of the independent Institute for Policy Studies in Tbilisi. He says the war will leave many lingering questions in Georgians' minds. "It's difficult to judge Saakashvili's image just now, but when things calm down people will question whether this was an adventure, or whether it was well planned," he says.
The outlook for Russia's future relations with the West is grim, says Mr. Asmus, the former diplomat, now head of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels. "No one in the West wants a new cold war, but it's clear that despite everything we may have hoped for we are in a new geopolitical competition in the old Soviet spheres of influence. We may lose Georgia. We may lose the project of the "Rose Revolution," the best chance for a democratic future in the Caucasus. The next target for Moscow will be Ukraine," which also aspires to join NATO, he adds.
Robert Marquand contributed from Paris.