Anne Penketh: Moscow flexed military muscle, and left West humiliated

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Russia is back. That is the indisputable result of the six-day war in the heart of Europe which may have changed the borders of a state for ever.

The conflict, conducted with brio by Vladimir Putin, who clearly remains the man in charge of the Kremlin, has ended on Russia's terms, and there is nothing the West can do about it. Moscow has demonstrated that it is prepared to use military might to further its strategic goals, while the democracies of the West are not.

In the world of international power games, Mr Putin's newly assertive Russia has chalked up a victory whose ripples will be felt for years to come. The US and Europe, dependent on Russian goodwill and gas, have been humbled. But the most chilling defeat is for Georgia, the former Soviet republic which dared to switch strategic allegiances and stand up to the Kremlin.

Russia's goals in embarking on the war in Georgia were twofold. It wanted to get rid of a troublesome leader who was too independent for Russia's liking, and had attracted the personal enmity of Mr Putin, who now wants the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, hauled before a war crimes tribunal like Saddam Hussein.

But the Kremlin had also drawn a line in the sand over Nato membership for Georgia. Mr Saakashvili's botched attempt to bring a breakaway region under central government control last Thursday gave Mr Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, the opportunity he had craved on the pretext of "humanitarian intervention" to halt a "genocide".

The revenge for Russia – and Mr Putin personally – is sweet. At a stroke, it is payback time for the Russians, who were ignored by the US and its allies before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo independence earlier this year. We can now see that they took Russia for granted at their peril. Moscow has not been such a dominant player on the global stage since the days of the Soviet Union.

No one in Georgia or a Western capital doubts that Moscow's lightning retaliation when Georgian forces launched their surprise attack on the South Ossetian capital was long planned. Mr Saakashvili ignored Western warnings – including those from the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, during a visit to Georgia – not to respond to Russian provocation. But in the end he fell into the Russian trap by ordering an ill-planned strike while the eyes of the world were on the Olympic Games in Beijing. He cannot have anticipated the overwhelming response from the nuclear power across the border, involving massive firepower from tanks, warplanes and battle-hardened Russian soldiers.

The Russian fightback was branded disproportionate by US and European leaders who urged a ceasefire, convened the UN Security Council and sent envoys scurrying to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and Moscow. The latest leader to sue for peace was the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, bearing a plan which has yet to be fully endorsed by all sides. Russia now holds the best cards because Mr Putin realised early on – presumably from his conversations with President George Bush in Beijing – that the West has no stomach for a war with Russia to save Georgian democracy.

Mr Bush spoke out strongly in the White House Rose Garden on his return to Washington from Beijing on Monday. "It now appears that an effort may be under way to depose Georgia's duly elected government. Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatens a democratic government elected by its people. Such an action is unacceptable in the 21st century," he said.

But what are the penalties for violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign state? Russia recognises that Georgia's breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgian territory. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, it resulted in UN sanctions and a war against Saddam Hussein. In this case, the UN Security Council – where Russia holds veto power – has been paralysed. President Bush has warned that Russia risked harming its relations with the US and the EU.

The Kremlin masters will hardly be trembling in their boots, although they have now pulled back Russian troops from Georgia proper. The war ended as quickly as it began. But Dmitry Medvedev, who has replaced Mr Putin as President, made it clear that the Russian peacekeepers who had been stationed in both breakaway regions would remain. The EU-backed plan provides for discussion of the future status of Georgia's breakaway regions – so the borders of Europe are no longer sacrosanct.

The most surprising thing about the West's reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia is the shock that the military action generated. The "Cold War warriors" of Europe, the former Soviet bloc states which are now Nato and EU members, were certainly not surprised as they watched the rise of an authoritarian brand of government in Russia under Mr Putin. Russian leaders, and successive defence ministers, have warned for years that the Kremlin remained fundamentally opposed to Nato's encroachment as it gobbled up former Soviet states and countries of the former Soviet bloc.

To the north, the three Baltic states are now Nato members. To the west, there is Poland. Ukraine and Georgia are campaigning for membership, threatening Russia with strategic suffocation. Although last April's Nato summit failed to set a timetable, the two former Soviet republics were given assurances of eventual membership of the Western alliance.

Since then, Russia has set about strengthening ties with Georgia's rebellious regions to punish Mr Saakashvili, culminating in the short, sharp war. Nato is now in a bind. The Western alliance is loath to be seen allowing a third country – Russia – a veto in its affairs. So yesterday, the Nato secretary general reaffirmed that the offer of Georgia's membership still stood.

But Mr Saakashvili's headstrong and impulsive behaviour in the crisis, following his disastrous crackdown on demonstrators last November, has eroded Western support. For Ukraine, the future looks even bleaker. If Russia was prepared to act militarily over Nato membership of Georgia, a country of four million people – what calamity awaits Ukraine, a powerhouse of 46 million with a sizeable Russian minority?

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