Cheney spent only four and a half hours in Georgia, but the visit included a strong rebuke to Russia's behavior and a highly symbolic visit to American troops unloading humanitarian supplies at the airport here within sight of an airplane factory that Russian bombs had damaged.
He arrived a day after the United States pledged $1 billion to help Georgia recover from its defeat by Russia's armed forces, which continue to control two breakaway regions, as well as buffer zones in Georgia.
Standing beside President Mikheil Saakashvili, Cheney said that the United States had strongly supported Georgia since protests in 2003 ushered a democratic government to power and that it would continue to do so despite Russia's proclamations that Saakashvili's government was illegitimate.
George Friedman of Stratfor.com gives his views on Georgia and the Balance of Power in the New York Review of Books 08/28/08 (09/25/08 issue). His analysis seems to implicitly assume that the differences between Russia and the West will be central to Russia's external challenges in the coming years. That contrasts with the explicit analysis of Joschka Fischer that China and Islamic nations and movements to the South of Russia will be considerably more important strategic challenges from Russia's point of view.
But Friedman provides a lot of useful information and background:
The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of power in Eurasia. It has simply announced that the balance of power had already shifted. The United States has been absorbed in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as potential conflict with Iran and a destabilizing situation in Pakistan. It has no strategic ground forces in reserve and is in no position to intervene on the Russian periphery. This has opened an opportunity for the Russians to reassert their influence in the former Soviet sphere. Moscow did not have to concern itself with the potential response of the United States or Europe; hence, the balance of power had already shifted, and it was up to the Russians when to make this public. They did that on August 8. [my emphasis]
One thing I don't understand about his analysis is his (qualified) argument that "Russia had laid a trap" for Georgia and their Western allies.
This may well be true. But I haven't seen anyone lay out the evidence for this specific claim, though the neocons and other advocates of a New Cold War have been repeating it. There is no real dispute that Russia was prepared to respond quickly to military action initiated by Georgia. And its certainly reasonable to assume that made the kind of calculations about the effect of such a response on Russia's larger foreign policy. But that's not really the same as saying the Russians "laid a trap". That only makes sense if Russia actually did something to trick them into attacking. Friedman doesn't describe any such action.
But he does make it clear that the Georgian leaders almost certainly had some indication that the US approved of their attack on Russian positions in South Ossetia:
It is difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched their attack against US wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States, and they were in no position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities. The first is a huge breakdown in intelligence, in which the United States either was unaware of the deployments of Russian forces or knew of them but - along with the Georgians - miscalculated Russia's intentions. The second is that the United States, along with other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when its military was in shambles and its government was paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s and 1980s. The Russians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The United States had assumed that they would not risk the consequences of an invasion. [my emphasis]
Friedman also explains the various factors which, he argues, appear to the Russians as hostile moves by the US and NATO aimed against Russian vital interests. It's worth saying here that recognizing that the Russians have rational reasons to perceive such a threat is not the same as saying that Western leaders necessarily intend such a threat.
Two of the critical issues from Russia's viewpoint were the US/NATO support for the independence of Kosovo and the decision to put Ukraine on the track to NATO membership:
... the discussion of including Ukraine in NATO represented to them a fundamental threat to Russia's national security. It would, in their calculations, have rendered Russia indefensible and threatened to destabilize the Russian Federation itself. When the United States went so far as to suggest that Georgia be included as well, bringing NATO deeper into the Caucasus, the Russian conclusion - publicly stated - was that the United States in particular intended to encircle and break Russia.
The second and lesser event was the decision by Europe and the United States to back Kosovo's separation from Serbia. The Russians were friendly with Serbia, but the deeper issue for Russia was this: the principle accepted in Europe since World War II was that, to prevent conflict, national borders would not be changed. If that principle were violated in Kosovo, other border shifts—including demands by various regions for independence from Russia —might follow. The Russians publicly and privately asked that Kosovo not be given formal independence, but instead continue its informal autonomy, which was the same thing in practical terms. Russia's requests were ignored.
From the Ukrainian experience, the Russians became convinced that the United States was engaged in a plan of strategic encirclement and strangulation of Russia. From the Kosovo experience, they concluded that the United States and Europe were not prepared to consider Russian wishes even in fairly minor affairs. That was the breaking point. If Russian desires could not be accommodated even in a minor matter like this, then clearly Russia and the West were in conflict. For the Russians, as we said, the question was how to respond. Having declined to respond in Kosovo, they decided to respond where they had all the cards: in South Ossetia. [my emphasis]
That last sentence could be read to imply that the Russians were somehow baiting Georgia into attacking them. As I say above, I haven't seent he evidence for that.
This could also be read that way:
Putin did not want to reestablish the Soviet Union, but he did want to re-establish the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet region. To accomplish that, he had to do two things. First, he had to reestablish the credibility of the Russian army as a fighting force, at least in its own region. Second, he had to establish that Western guarantees, including NATO membership, meant nothing in the face of Russian power. He did not want to confront NATO directly, but he did want to confront and defeat a power that was closely aligned with the United States, had US support, aid, and advisers, and was widely seen as being under American protection. Georgia was the perfect choice. [my emphasis]
Friedman also points out that current US policies in the GWOT (global war on terror) leave the US with very limited military options in the Caucuses (Georgia and Ukraine):
Therefore, the United States has a problem - either it must reorient its strategy away from the Middle East and toward the Caucasus, or it has to seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian counter in Iran. Even if the United States had an appetite for war in Georgia at this time, it would have to calculate the Russian response in Iran - and possibly in Afghanistan (even though Moscow's interests there are currently aligned with those of Washington).[my emphasis]