Michael Binyon, a former Moscow correspondent and now columnist for "The Times" of London, says Russia set out to provoke Georgia into a war. And, as he writes in a recent column, "from the day that the Russian tank brigade raced through the tunnel into South Ossetia, Russia has not made one wrong move."
RFE/RL's Natalia Golitsyna asks Binyon how he interprets what happened in Georgia and why he calls it "a brilliant and brutal display of Russia's national game, chess" in which "Moscow has just declared checkmate."
RFE/RL: Why do you say Russia has just won a chess match?
Michael Binyon: I think to the West and particularly to the Americans, I think the Russians have managed to outmaneuver the Americans in the sense that the Americans have declared verbal support for Georgia but have not really been able to offer any either military or substantial political support or in any way come to their aid at the time when Russia was undertaking its incursion into Georgia.
It has been clear for some time that the Russians have seen South Ossetia as an area in which to provoke Georgia and use the separatist issue as a cause to really upset, disturb, and interfere in Georgia's political situation. The separatist question is a long-standing one and it is clearly one where there are deep passions aroused by a series of military pin-pricks, little cross-border raids, or some kinds of provocation.
The South Ossetians have been kind of goading the Georgians, and I think Russia realized that at some point the Georgians would be tempted to try to reconquer that territory and they were ready at any point if the Georgians did do that and the Georgians thought Russia was not watching or was not attentive. And the moment the Georgian troops went into South Ossetia, Russian troops came pouring through the tunnel ready to take on the Georgians.
RFE/RL: Can the Russian invasion of South Ossetia and Georgia proper be justified?
Binyon: Well, it depends on what you mean by justified -- in the sense that they said they were simply driving Georgian troops out of South Ossetia in the same way that NATO said it was perfectly justified to invade Serbia to drive Serbian troops out of Kosovo. Now, if the aim is simply to go back to the position before this whole thing started, then they could say they were doing no more than a humanitarian operation.
RFE/RL: How can one explain the West's belated and languid reaction to the Russian-Georgian conflict?
Binyon: In every way the West was completely unprepared for what was happening. First of all, Western attention was not focused on the Caucasus, the world was looking at the Beijing Olympics and so was George Bush. The West was not thinking about what adequate response they would give if Georgia suddenly did something or, indeed, if Georgia suddenly got into trouble. There was a kind of supposed understanding that Georgia could count on the Americans but that understanding was never laid down, it was never clear. Georgia has no treaty relationship with the West or with the Americans and when Georgia suddenly found it was fighting for its life, as it saw it, and appealed for help, it was not clear what the outside world could do and it turned out the answer is very little.
Georgia has been very happy to show itself as an outpost of American interest and American solidarity, but without getting any guarantees from the Americans that this would come with a guarantee of protection.
RFE/RL: In your article you warn about the lessons of this war. What kind of lessons do you have in mind and whom would they be for?
Binyon: Many of the former Soviet republics will be extremely upset and worried by what has happened because it suggests that Russia will take a vigorous action if it sees its interests threatened and they see that as a threat to their full independence from Russia. The lesson is that they should be careful about not provoking or antagonizing their next door neighbor.
For the West, the lesson is if you are going to try to establish an outpost on the borders of Russia, of your influence, and your military advisers and your way of doing things, this is not without consequences and it is likely to provoke an angry reaction. And the lesson then for Tbilisi is that, essentially, do you want to keep this president who has brought all this trouble for you?
RFE/RL: Nevertheless, won't Russia find itself in international isolation as a result of this action?
Binyon: In the short term they certainly will. I think there will be measures the Americans will try to take and measures that others will try to take. But the first question is, are these measures likely to be effective in changing Russian policy and how drastic will these measures be? Because if they are measures that are long-lasting and to such an extent that they actually start off a new cold war, then it really couldn't be in the West's interest either -- particularly as the long-term policies of America in terms of bringing stability to the Middle East or disarming Iran or fighting terrorism. All of these things depend on good or at least working relations with Russia and also obviously Western Europe depends heavily on Russian energy. And so the idea that the West will impose a kind of boycott or pariah status on Russia is, I think, fairly unlikely.
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here