First, most important thought: Don't just accept the simple storyline of a quick story in a U.S. news outlet. Actually, just don't accept a simple storyline, period. That includes my simple storyline attempts to sum it up for people over the weekend, actually. Just a taste of the moral ambiguity:
- South Ossetia (disputed region) is ethnically separate [clarification: from the rest of Georgia] and wants to be part of Russia;
- We recognized the independence of a similar disputed region (Kosovo) when the new territory was pro-American*;
- South Ossetia fought a war with Georgia to become an unrecognized semi-autonomous territory patrolled by peacekeepers, which most of their population honors;
- Georgia appears to have planned this attack in an attempt to blitz Ossetia and claim it quickly, before Russia could react;
- Georgia was shelling the capital of Ossetia - Tskhinvali - with heavy artillery, causing by lowest estimates several hundred civilian casualties (up to 2000+) in an area with a population of something like 75k;
- Both Georgia and Russia have strong nationalist, irridentist feelings: Georgia wants to keep/retake Ossetia while Russia wants to retake/re-puppetize/regain controlling influence in Georgia;
- Russia has spent years fomenting tensions in Georgia and doing their best to strong-arm it into becoming dependent on Russia again;
- The Caucasus mountains form a nearly impassible barrier between North Ossetia (Russian province) and South Ossetia (the breakaway Georgian province) making economic integration difficult. South Ossetia would likely be economically better off with Georgia;
- There are oil interests for everyone in Georgia, because it is a crucial site for a trans-Caucasus pipeline to bring oil from central Asia into Europe while bypassing Russia. Russia wants to keep exclusive control of distributing this oil to Europe, which they use as a foreign policy bludgeon;
- Despite Georgia's call for help based on "defense of freedom", Georgian president Saakashvili has increasingly cracked down on opposition;
- On the other hand, his opponent - Putin - has engaged in more crackdowns, likely been responsible for the 'mysterious deaths' of opposition journalists and dissidents, and ruthless destruction of any potential rival political power base inside Russia;
- The United States has trained Georgia's army in return for Georgian support for the war in Iraq (Georgia has the 3rd largest military contingent there, after the US and the UK, or did up until this war);
- Georgia wanted to join NATO, but Germany and France resisted and defeated initial American desires to add them to the club (which would have mandated NATO to defend Georgia in the event of war). The US ceded that Georgia would first have to resolve its internal territorial disputes, as we wanted to focus on pushing through continued development of a 'missile shield';
- Did I say internal territorial disputes? Oh yeah! Haha, whoops, there's another unrecognized separatist region in Georgia, called Abkhazia.
And... yeah, there's even more where that came from. The arguments against the Russians escalate steeply as they move further into Georgia or pursue more ambitious aims.
* = Yes, I realize there are differences. But they're debatable differences, and Russia has a pretty good case for claiming it as precedent. Plus, while I can draw distinctions, I always have the nagging feeling I'm just reaching for justifications. Also, I'd offer a mea culpa for not paying enough attention to warnings about this effect of Kosovo's independence, except that what I say doesn't matter to any actual decisions. So instead, I'll just say "I was wrong. Shock."
Other thing I wanted to comment on: one of the foreign policy blogs I was reading described this as a new, minor 'proxy war' demonstration, pitting Western arms/doctrine (since the U.S. has trained Georgia's military over the past few years) against Russian arms/doctrine. And while Russia vastly outnumbered Georgia, NATO likely would have faced superior numbers in the first stages of a "Cold War gone hot" in Europe as well. Thus, the conclusion is, Western doctrine has not held up well.
I disagree. Obviously I'm neither in the military nor a professional expert in military affairs, but then I'm neither a diplomat nor a professional foreign policy analyst either. For one thing, while the Georgians were using Western light infantry equipment (ie more M16 rifles than AK74s, the more modern version of the famous AK47 Kalashnikov) the vast majority of their heavy equipment was old Soviet issue. Second, this might signal something about the superiority of Russian doctrine vs. '80s Western doctrine, but more modern American military doctrine revolves more around "network-centric warfare" (which, while not entirely technological, is strongly intertwined with it) and the integration of our superiority in military satellites and high technology. Presumably this wasn't transferred to the Georgian army, and Russia would likely consider us granting Georgia access to all our technological resources, satellites, and communications during this conflict an act of war on our part.
There's also an important point I'll try to remember to convey another time about how the increased importance of Russia in foreign policy makes McCain a completely disastrous choice for the next presidency due to his irrational hatred of the Russians and aggressive, provocative policies and statements that serve little use other than precisely that - provoking the Russians. This at a time when, unlike during the Cold War, there are still plenty of opportunities to move into more productive cooperation with Russia and contain our conflicts to specific spheres. A lot of people in the foreign policy community (even generally right-wing realists) are recognizing this - follow the links below and you'll see it - but it remains to be seen if the American public will agree or adore McCain for being 'tough'.
Fistful of Euros
American Footprints (also contains links to many, many other sources)
Duck of Minerva (yes, it doesn't *sound* like serious foreign policy commentary. It is.)
Lawyers, Guns, & Money (look specifically for the Russia-Georgia stuff)
Daniel Larison's Eunomia at The American Conservative
If you're interested you'll get tons, tons more links as you continue to branch out from there, including lots of articles in newspapers. I intentionally linked to the good foreign policy blogs as opposed to newspaper articles, because the blogs link to the paper analysis but not vice-versa, and even the few good paper analysis stories (the ones solicited from experts, not written to provide a marketable storyline) are less complete.
Okay, that *was* long. But something this serious deserves long and longer.
Speaking of serious, my hopes & wishes go out to all the soldiers and particularly all the families and children caught up in this maelstrom. While I find the situation fascinating and disturbing in a geopolitical sense, it's always worth remembering that behind those headlines and all the moves in the diplomatic game are the bullet-ridden bodies of young men caught up in nationalist fervor, old women too sickly to evacuate buried when their houses are hit by artillery fire, and even the bloodied bodies of children caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.