While I am still sorting out the claims and counterclaims about who fired the first shots in South Ossetia, one thing is clear: Russian "Prime Minister" Vladimir Putin -- who is already the big winner in this conflict -- is poised to take advantage of it.
Let's dial back the clock to April, when NATO failed to admit Ukraine and Georgia as members. Georgia was told that it must first resolve its "frozen conflicts" with renegade regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia to join. Nobody in NATO relished the prospect of being on the hook for some inscrutable ethnic conflict in the Caucasus.
But, coming on the heels of Kosovo's February declaration of independence, this was practically an invitation to Putin to do his utmost to ensure that Georgia wouldn't ever be stable enough to be a NATO member.
Here's the basic logic:
- Georgia can't join NATO until it is stable
- Russia doesn't want Georgia to join NATO
- Ergo, Russia will destabilize Georgia
The policy had the added bonus of revenge for the Western powers' recognition of Kosovo and it cast doubts on the wisdom of using Georgia as an energy corridor. Plus, it puts the United States in an awkward position and exposes American backing of Georgia as not worth a damned thing. For Putin, it's a quadruple play.
Did Saakashvili miscalculate? Absolutely. He foolishly thought that Georgia could take back South Ossetia before Russia could effectively counterattack, and then the international community would shut the conflict down. But given Putin's brutal logic, this war was probably going to happen one way or another -- it was just a question of when.
UPDATE: Georgia has called a unilateral ceasefire.
... Russian choosing to escalate? The Times reports that Russian troops are attacking Gori.
The Georgians told them, ‘We're done. Let us withdraw," one American military official said. "But the Russians are not letting them withdraw. They are pursuing them, and people are seeing this."
Also, the Bush administration is heading to the U.N. Security Council, where of course Russia will exercise its veto. Putin and Medvedev are refusing to take calls from Saakashvili, and "Western officials" are speculating that the Russians want to oust the Georgian president.