The proxy war between Russia and Georgia that has been taking place for the last 15 years in South Ossetia and Abkhazia has finally come into the open.
The result is a tragedy for all, particularly the Ossetian and Georgian families in the firing line. It is unclear who started the war, but its sources lie in the February 2008 declaration of Kosovo's independence; the March presidential elections in Russia; the April 2008 decision to accept, in principle, Ukraine's and Georgia's membership of NATO; the price of oil; and Russia's continuing imperial nostalgia.
In Russian eyes, the legitimacy of secession in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was reinforced by the Kosovo decision; the Russian presidential election resulted in a weak president who has to prove his strength; and NATO's decision in April showed Russia that although the alliance was still expanding, the West was divided about Georgia's membership. Add to this Russia's greater foreign-policy independence due to exploding oil revenues and rising Russian nationalism rooted in nostalgia for imperial greatness, and we can see why Russia was ready and able to repulse Georgia's attempt to retake South Ossetia.
The war in South Ossetia is not just a Georgian-Russian conflict. It has become a decisive issue in Russian-Western relations and a test of Western resolve. Western powers have poured financial aid and commercial investments into Georgia, including the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that supplies oil to Europe without crossing Russian territory. This pipeline is insufficient for Europe's oil needs, but it is the first step in creating a potential -- and strategic -- alternative to Europe's energy dependence on Russia. Georgia is also, despite its failings, a democratic state -- the only one in the South Caucasus -- and has been promised a future in NATO. If nothing changes in South Ossetia as a result of this war, the West will lose not only democratic Georgia, but democratic Ukraine and other potential democratic states on Russia's periphery.
It is more serious than that. Russia is an authoritarian state. Its media is subservient to state needs and its citizens have no control over their government. Victory in this war with no consequences for Russia will reinforce antidemocratic forces in Russia, increase the militarization of its foreign policy, and encourage Russia to take more risks elsewhere on its borders. It will lead to further instability in the North Caucasus where Russia is in a precarious position, barely keeping its Muslim nations, such as the Ingush, Chechens, and Balkars, under control. This is not good for the European Union -- concerned about stable borders -- and it is proof to Russia, yet again, that Europe is a divided region that can be manipulated.
But what about Georgia's future? It is unlikely that Georgia planned this war, otherwise it would have taken the militarily maneuver vital to winning -- the blocking of the Roki Tunnel that is South Ossetia's lifeline with Russia. Russian military hardware is currently pouring through this tunnel and preventing the quick victory that Georgia hoped for.
Defeat for Georgia without any recognizable gain or Western political intervention will be a disaster for the country and President Mikheil Saakashvili personally. It will end Georgia's NATO aspirations -- why would NATO take in a country where military instability can break out any time? -- and it will be a disaster for the Georgian economy.
Fitch Ratings, which assesses market and credit potential, has already suggested Georgia's positive ratings may change for the worse as a result of the war. It is likely that a Georgian defeat will encourage Russia to take a more aggressive line in Georgia's other secessionist territory of Abkhazia. For Saakashvili personally, it will mean an end to his dream of reuniting Georgia and a loss of legitimacy. Many Georgians have long been skeptical of Saakashvili's anti-Russian policy. The Georgian opposition, which almost overthrew Saakashvili's government in November 2007, will be emboldened. We can expect more political turmoil in Georgian domestic politics.
There is one glimmer of hope, but it will take Western political will and Russian flexibility, neither of which are in great supply. The war has demonstrated that the Russian peacekeeping mission in Georgia, overseen by the Joint Control Commission, has failed. Russia was never neutral in this conflict and President Dmitry Medvedev's claims that by sending in troops he is defending Russia's peacekeeping mandate are spurious. The only long term and peaceful way forward -- something that Georgia has long sought -- is international involvement in South Ossetia that will, as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, establish a period of peace and confidence building. This would reestablish faith in the capacity of the international community as an effective mediator. But does Europe or the United States have the will for something like this, and will a victorious Russia risk losing its gains?
Ultimately, all lose from this war unless all parties cooperate to reestablish peace and the rule of law in South Ossetia. Russia is in a strong economic position, but the war reinforces Western distrust in Moscow. It will activate the EU's East European members against any partnership with Russia, end Russian WTO aspirations, and increase Russian triumphal nationalism at home.
Western countries, if they do not act, will expose their divisions and weakness. Russia will take note and countries like Georgia will adjust their pro-Western ambitions accordingly. The biggest losers are the Georgian and South Ossetian peoples. Georgians and Ossetians have long traded and intermarried. This war will destroy their families, end trade and cooperation, and provide victory to those who support the power that comes from the barrel of a gun.
Stephen Jones is a professor of Russian and Eurasian studies at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL