The U.S. government was taken by surprise Friday when Putin unleashed the Russian army: Elements of the 58th Russian Army of the North Caucasus Military District thundered into South Ossetia, backed by the formidable 76th Airborne "Pskov" Division, to drive Georgian forces out of the breakaway secessionist region of South Ossetia. But once unleashed, they did not stop: Russian aircraft and artillery have bombarded the Georgian town of Gori and have even bombed Georgia's main international airport outside the capital, Tbilisi.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad even reported to the U.N. Security Council that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a phone call that the pro-Western Saakashvili had to leave office. Khalilzad also clashed in an unusually nasty and public exchange with Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin.
The Bush administration has been gung-ho about supporting the pro-Western Saakashvili, who sent 2,000 Georgian troops to Iraq to aid U.S. forces there. Saakashvili wants to get his tiny former Soviet republic on the eastern shore of the Black Sea into NATO, and he had entirely convinced Bush, Rice and their top policymakers to back him all the way. But in March, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, several of America's main NATO allies in Europe flatly refused to agree to let Georgia in.
The United States had major strategic reasons for backing Georgia, and the Europeans had major strategic reasons for refusing to do so. The United States has backed the construction of a major oil pipeline from neighboring Azerbaijan through Georgia that would break Russian domination of global export routes for oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and from the Caspian Sea between them. The Caspian Basin is one of the largest potential sources of oil in the world.
However, the nations of Western Europe are already dependent on Russia for their natural gas supplies, especially for winter heating. And the Europeans are far more vulnerable to direct Russian pressure, especially if Moscow cuts off those gas supplies, than America is.
But also, Bush administration officials badly miscalculated: They did not realize that the Georgian army, at its best, is ramshackle and no match for even small Russian forces. They did not realize how determined the Russians were to topple Saakashvili, even if it meant resorting to force to do so. And they failed to rein in Saakashvili and prevent him from responding to Russian artillery bombardments of Georgian settlements close to the South Ossetian region.
Saakashvili sent his forces into South Ossetia, and they easily swept to the region's capital, Tskhinvali, despite fierce resistance.
Saakashvili may have thought he could not count on the next U.S. president, especially if it is Democratic front-runner Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, to back him to the hilt the way Bush has. So he may have wanted to take advantage of Bush's remaining months in the White House to finally eliminate the Russian-backed South Ossetian secessionists, who have been maintaining their thorny independence from Georgia ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
But Saakashvili miscalculated catastrophically: The United States still has 150,000 troops bogged down in Iraq and another 36,000 in Afghanistan. Even Obama, who has long advocated a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, wants to boost U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, initially by 10,000 more troops.
The last thing Bush or either of his prospective successors, Obama and Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain of Arizona, want, therefore, is to open up a new military front anywhere in the world. That is especially the case where the conflict could risk direct U.S. military confrontation with Russia, the world's other major thermonuclear superpower in terms of nuclear warheads and delivery systems.
For 190 years until 1991, Georgia was under Russian rule. It was therefore ruled from Moscow longer and from an earlier date than most of America's states were part of the United States. The Russians have been determined that Georgia should not be allowed to join NATO. Also, Georgia remains on Russia's own southern border, and because of the long and bloody war against Chechen secessionists in the North Caucasus, large Russian military forces were always concentrated in the region.
Saakashvili has learned this lesson, but too late: He offered Russia a cease-fire. The Kremlin rejected it, and Russian forces are now driving deeper into Georgia. Where or when will they stop? Putin told the Russian people on state television Monday that the Russian government would not stop until it had taken "its peacekeeping mission to a logical conclusion."
What does Putin regard as a "logical conclusion" to the Georgian problem? We shall soon see.