What happened here?

On 7 August, all hell broke loose in an obscure corner of Europe that most people had never heard of. Just like the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo before the outbreak of World War I, or the terrible martyrdom of that city eighty years later during the Balkan wars, the repercussions of these events will reverberate around the world for decades. I believe that what just happened will go down in history as marking a fundamental change in the way we think about - and act out - relations between countries in the post-Cold War world, and in a minute I will tell you why. It is not too early to elucidate the basic lessons. But first, the facts.

It begins, I am afraid, with a brief history lesson. When Georgia broke away from the USSR in 1991, two of its provinces - South Ossetia and Abkhazia - wanted to break away from Georgia. There were a large number of non-Georgian Ossetians and Abkhazians living in these areas, as well as a substantial number of Russian citizens. Georgia wanted to maintain its territorial integrity and resisted, and won the support of the majority of the rest of the world out of the simple fact that states tend to support the right of other states to their territorial integrity; to do otherwise weakens their own position.

One country that did not agree was Russia. Citing its interest in protecting ethnic Russians within these provinces, and hiding up its sleeve its desire to weaken Georgia, it took rebel movements in the territories under its wing. It provided them with support and weapons - not to mention Russian passports, eventually - and separatist movements in the two provinces were able to eject Georgian forces in brief wars that were marked by their brutality and human rights abuses by the separatists against civilians; Russian forces are alleged to have failed to distinguish themselves in this regard also. Georgia's president Eduard Shevardnadze was nearly killed in Abkhazia and did not show much desire to return for the rest of his term in office.

For years the two areas ruled themselves, while being recognized internationally as a part of Georgia. Russian "peacekeepers" were deployed to keep the rebels and the Georgians apart, but from the look of the heavy weaponry deployed by militias in the recent conflict, they do not appear to have prioritized their duty to prevent the introduction of new weaponry into the zone or maintain the peace. Co-operation between the separatist regions and Russia was close, and the leadership of the two regions include numerous pro-Moscow members of former Soviet elites. This situation obtained with little change until 2004, when Mikheil Saakashvili became the president of Georgia. He pledged he would restore Georgia's territorial integrity by regaining control of the separatist regions, a move necessary to fulfil his eventual wish to join NATO.

The Russians were affronted. They wanted to avoid Georgia joining NATO at all costs, and they wanted to destabilize the country. The South Ossetian authorities started getting increasingly belligerent, and in July they arrested four Georgian peacekeepers; when Georgia considered a military operation to rescue them, Russian jets flew over Georgian airspace as a warning. The Russians bolstered their presence in the separatist regions throughout 2008, moving in to build roads that their armies would travel down during the August war. Mortars, car bombings and shoot-outs became an increasing feature of daily life; one can only assume the separatist forces provoked the Georgians in the knowledge that the Russians would step in to defend them in the end game.

The fighting eventually became so heavy that the Georgians decided to launch a massive military operation to restore order. They had offered the regions substantial autonomy within a federal Georgia, which had been rejected in favour of the path of violence. The Georgians now chose to impose this situation by force; after all, one can never win on the negotiating table what one could not win anyway on the battlefield. But the Russians were ready. They had recently massed a large concentration of military force, including 700 tanks, just over the border from South Ossetia. When they moved into the separatist regions they easily drove out Georgian forces; as a justification, they accused the Georgians of "genocide" in South Ossetia. They said there were 2,000 dead in one city in South Ossetia alone, but Human Rights Watch only found 100 across the whole region.

At the end of the war, Georgia seemed to have lost everything. It had lost any hope of regaining control of the two separatist regions, and it was occupied by Russian forces. The limit to the movement of these forces in Georgia is purely their own will, not the capability of the Georgian military to resist. As I write, they remain in strategic points in Georgia and have a massive presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They have also used the opportunity to move massive surface-to-surface missile launchers into South Ossetia and to aim them at Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. These weapons, used to devastating effect in Chechnya, are designed for scattering a massive amount of ordinance across a battlefield. But the Russians prefer a different use: raining hell on civilians.

Why does it matter?

To understand why this all matters so much you need to look at the language that Russian officials have used during the whole crisis. The Georgians, it was said, could "forget about their territorial integrity". They had lost the right to it, Moscow said. The Russians accused the Georgians of widespread "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide", hence invoking a humanitarian motive for their own actions. They showed complete disdain for the principle of sovereignty that, on the whole, is the cornerstone of relations between states. They warped the language of humanitarian intervention into a justification for their own power play.

And they think all of this is justified because of the example of Kosovo. When the West bombed Serbia and then moved to occupy Kosovo because of the ethnic cleansing that Slobodan Milosevic had launched there, the Russians disagreed. They were worried about the effect the example might have, they said. If people start going around invading countries because of the way they are acting and chopping bits off, where does it end? But really, they disapproved because Serbia was a strong Russian ally; Serbia was strongly disapproved of in Washington, and so the Americans thought otherwise. The opinion of the two countries towards Serbia is not entirely arbitrary but from a logical point of view, it is; why should the dismemberment of a Russian ally be more acceptable than the dismemberment of an American ally?

This brings us to the heart of the problem: power. However much we believe in our own moral certitude in acting in Kosovo, the Russians did not and we cannot convince them that their viewpoint is wrong. It is not something that can be proven. Similarly, their actions in Georgia may be rightly condemned in the West, but we cannot prove to them that they are wrong or that intervention per se is wrong, because we have indulged ourselves.

This doesn't mean we were wrong to indulge, but it brings us entirely back down to earth from our post-Cold War euphoria and reminds us that it is power, and not our principles, that is the final arbiter of what is right and wrong in relations between states. The violation of a country's sovereignty and its dismemberment was fine by us when we were the ones doing it, but we have to realize that others have the power to do it as well. And the use of our own principle against us in Georgia has shown that it makes no difference if the words behind the principle ring true or are lies; what matters is the fact of power itself.

All of the cant about sovereignty and an end to spheres of influence - areas which big powers consider to be their own special interest, where they feel the right to intervene to promote their own interests - has been shown for what it is. Rules to be broken. Laws to be followed most of the time, but not when our vital interests are threatened. Well, we just discovered that we are not the only ones who can break the rules. We just discovered that we are not the only ones with vital interests that we think are threatened. Georgia, 2008, will go down in history as the place that America once again had to contend with a great power that wanted very different things to it and had the will and the capability to take them. History is back, and no more urgent task awaits the next president than seeing that the risk or reality of gigantic European wars that every generation before mine experienced is not back as well.

Because this time, we might not survive to form a more perfect union - either of us.

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