So the fate of Georgia sends an ominous message to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the countries of Central Asia and perhaps even to the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Russia must now be tempted to see just how much their membership in NATO and the European Union means these days after the West proved so humiliatingly irrelevant over Georgia.
And since the taboo against invasion of a sovereign state has been broken, countries like Nepal and Taiwan can be forgiven if they look at Beijing and start feeling nervous.
Indeed, some quite large countries are already feeling edgy. The media in Ukraine are already asking if they are next on Russia's list for saber-rattling and reassertion of Russia's great-power status. If the usual rules of international law are now meaningless, Vietnam has cause to worry about China, and Kazakhstan may be looking nervously to Moscow to the west and Beijing to the east.
The West should have been better prepared for this crisis in the Caucasus, which has been simmering for some time. There was no excuse not to see this coming. On May 12 this column analyzed the implications of the refusal of the European allies to accept the Bush administration's proposal to start Georgia and Ukraine on the path to NATO membership.
"Russia seems to have taken this as a signal that NATO will not directly oppose its assertion of a sphere of influence in the oil-rich Caucasus, where Georgia offers the only oil pipeline to the West that is not under Moscow's direct control," this reporter wrote.
The column concluded: "But the temptations for the Kremlin to reassert that great power and authority that it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union are compelling, particularly when the Europeans and Americans are too divided, too distracted and too worried about energy security to make common cause."
The Russians have now acted, with considerable military efficiency and excellent diplomatic timing. The results are clear. Russia is now a great power again in its region, which it calls "the near-abroad," and the neighbors all know it.
The Europeans are simply incapable of doing anything about it. They do not have the troops, the political will or sufficient confidence in their energy supplies to act in a way that might be expected. The European Union, after all, has three times the population and more than 10 times the GDP of Russia. The Europeans have more than twice as many soldiers in uniform as the Russians, more modern warplanes and more warships. They just lack the resolve to do anything with them.
The Americans have been taught a sharp lesson. The era of the lone superpower is over. According to its military doctrine, the U.S. armed forces are supposed to be able to fight two major wars at once. But we now know it can barely handle two low-intensity counterinsurgency operations, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan, at the same time.
Had there been more preparation and decisiveness and had the U.S. leadership been more trusted, plans could have been drawn up three months ago for a swift deployment of NATO air power. It was Russian air power that sent the Georgian army fleeing back up the road to the city of Gori and then on to the capital of Tbilisi Tuesday. Along the way, they abandoned weapons, vehicles, uniforms and supplies in what looked like an appalling rout for an army that supposedly has spent the past three years being trained by the U.S. military. One NATO fighter wing and perhaps another wing of fighter-bombers and a few firm statements from NATO leaders, and the Russians might not have budged.
Nor should the Russians take the sole blame. The Georgians gave them the pretext by sending in their troops to retake South Ossetia last week, after considerable provocation that included artillery barrages on Georgian villages. Either they assumed they would get more support from NATO and the Americans, or they hoped the Bush administration could be "bounced" into backing them. That was a mistake.
And the West at least paved the way with its own precedents for the Russian actions, by attacking Serbia without a U.N. mandate in 1999, by taking and occupying Kosovo and now by recognizing Kosovo's independence. The Russians have a point when they assert that it was thus NATO that broke the long European taboo against changing borders by force. The Russians warned they would feel free to take this as a precedent for the Caucasus. It was to echo the Kosovo precedent that the Russians are now claiming, without much evidence, that Georgia was guilty of "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" against South Ossetians.
The outcome of the diplomatic mission of French President Nicolas Sarkozy remains unclear. Russia says its troops have stopped. Georgia claims they are rolling through the city of Gori. In any event, Georgia will be in no position to defend itself, its pipelines or its interests against the Russians for some time to come. The Russians have been encouraged to behave as if it were the bad old days. So have the Chinese. The Europeans have shown their pathetic colors. The United States seems to have forgotten how to lead. The world has become a more dangerous place, even though we all saw it coming.