Much of the conflict between Russia and Georgia can be explained by looking at a map of the Soviet Union in 1989:
and a map of Russia today:
The end of the Cold War splintered the Soviet Union into numerous different countries. Almost all of them could tell themselves that they were breaking free of an autocratic central government. The exception—Russia—could not. The Soviet Union had been dominated by Russia and by Russians. It’s capital had been in Moscow. The Soviet Union had, in many ways, been identified as Russia. With the Soviet Union gone, Russia was the country that pretty much everyone thought had lost the Cold War. It was Boris Yeltsin’s particular genius that he, for a brief moment, was able to convince the Russians that Russia had been just another territory oppressed by an alien government. But by the first decade of the 21st century, that story no longer seemed convincing. Former Warsaw Pact countries, like Poland, were joining the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. The United States was allying itself with a range of former Soviet republics in Europe and Asia, places like the Ukraine, Georgia, Turkmenistan, and so on. The Russian economy ranked 11th in the world, behind Canada. Life expectancy had fallen to 65 years, and the population was shrinking rather than growing. The Russian military had found it difficult to reestablish control over the minor breakaway province of Chechnya.
Russians believed themselves a declining power, a sense that Vladimir Putin played on in his rise to power. One of his goals, since that ascension, has been to reinvigorate Russia’s military self-confidence and to build a wall against the spreading U.S. Influence in countries near Russia. Georgia fit that bill perfectly. South Ossetia—the ostensible reason for the conflict—bordered on Russia. It had an American-educated lawyer as its President. The United States had equipped and trained much of its army, and in return the Georgians had sent the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq, behind only the United States itself, and Britain. It was, everyone would understand, an American client. Yet, geographically, it would be enormously difficult for the United States to help, should war break out with Russia: American ships would have to get into the Black Sea, American planes (with the exception of those in Turkey) would have to come from the Middle East, and American troops (if any could be spared) would have to be flown in from Iraq. Georgia was not a member of NATO. It was much smaller than Russia, unlike another American client, the Ukraine.
Putin appears to have laid the groundwork for the campaign, by giving the South Ossetians Russian passports and by preparing militarily. The Russian Navy began deploying to the Mediterranean Sea again last December, which makes it difficult for the U.S. Navy to think about entering the Black Sea. The Russian army built up forces in Beslan, just north of South Ossetia. The Georgians played right into Putin’s hands this August by attempting to enforce their control of South Ossetia. They may have thought that no one would pay attention with all eyes on the Olympics, but they figured wrong.
Military Analysis of the Campaign
The Caucasus is one of the places where the Wehrmacht went to die in World War II. The Caucasus mountains provide a ready-made defensive boundary for the Georgians, but South Ossetia provided a gateway that the Russians exploited. Once past those mountains, Georgia is a long strip of a country, stretching from the Black Sea in the west to Azerbaijan in the east. Most of its roads and railways run east-west through that valley. The Russian attack was executed nearly flawlessly; moving quickly through the mountains, the Russians descended into the valley and captured Gori, in the middle of Georgia. That split the country in half, and gave the Russians effective control over the Georgian economy. They don’t have to conquer the rest of the country or even the capital of Tbilisi to dictate terms to the Georgians.