You all have a pretty good idea what's going on at this point, so I will keep the summary brief:
Georgia has two provinces that have declared independence in the 1990's--South Ossetia and Abkhazia--and Russia jumped to recognize that independence (and probably wants to subsume them if they actually achieve physical indepdenence). A quick fight between Georgia and Russia left Russian "peacekeeping" troops in both breakaway regions, and a great deal of autonomy (Wikipedia considers them "de facto independent," much like Taiwan).
In the meantime, Bush's aggressive expansion of NATO hit a roadblock with the Ukraine and Georgia, because the Russians threatened to cut off French and German gas and oil supplies. Instead, the Ukraine and Georgia were offered promises of membership that were set to become action plans in December. Such an expansion would cut the Russians off from Europe for as long as the West pleased. December 2008 slowly began to creep upon a Russia whose behavior has been increasingly assertive and aggressive. Surely, plans were in the works.
Then things got complicated. Georgia's president Saakashvili has had strong but dwindling support since his 2004 victory with 96% of the vote--in 2008, he won 53% (the second place candidate won onlt 27%). He has had rather contradictory goals of improving relations with Russia, winning back control over South Ossetia and Sbkhazia, and entering NATO. He is one of President Bush's most loyal international allies.
Now: Five days ago. It should be noted that there are no independent foreign media in Georgia at all, so reports can only be taken on face. Five days ago, Georgian troops stormed into South Ossetia, claiming shelling by South Ossetian forces. This would be a claim of an unlikely and suicidal half-attempt at conflict, unless one presupposes that the Russians might have invited the South Ossetians to make such a move.
Afterwards, Georgian troops rolled in, hoping to use the incident (which may not have even happened) to reassert military control over South Ossetia. The region is connected to Russia primarily by a single tunnel, which the Georgians probably considered bombing, but they likely worried about provoking a formal Russian response.
Russian Cossacks, who are recognized as a pseudo-official security force in the Caucases by the Russian government (who often makes dubious agreements with shady characters like mobs and Chechneans to keep order in a vast Federation that it largely cannot centrally control), began flowing into Georgia through that tunnel on busses. They came (of course) from the region of North Ossetia, who shares ethnic and cultural ties with the South Ossetians, and somehow stuck with the Russian Federation during the confused and frantic early 1990's breaking-up of the USSR. The Russians did little to stop them, and we mostly thought that the Russian government was happy to let "volunteers" do its dirty work.
But, of course, Russian citizens started dying. This is due in part to the fact that the Russians have slowly been infiltrating both regions with Russian citizens and "peacekeepers" (no doubt to Russify the regions) that have been hit by shelling and bombing, and also that the poorly-armed Cossacks picked fights with Georgian tanks and airplanes. At this point, Abkhazia started fighting the Georgians as well, in hopes of helping the Ossetians deliver its army a rough defeat that would seal their de facto independence indefinitely. The Georgians struggled, but it looked as if they might even prevail, and reunite their country.
The Russians are probably looking at this problem much like the Americans would view an attack on Taiwan. While the US does not address Taiwan as an independent state, it would not quietly let the Chinese invade--just as the Russians' feathers were quite ruffled by Georgian action in Ossetia. The difference is thus: The Russian army is much, much larger than the Georgian army. And with American forces tied up in the Middle East, Western retaliatory action was unlikely. So the Russians struck, and hard.
Georgia has suffered a rout; it is barely worth speaking of orders of battle or troop numbers, the Georgians just weren't up to the fight. Russian troops have hung around the Caucaus for some time, waiting for an opportunity like this. Russian troops have not only completely occupied both breakaway regions (much to the delight of a majority of their residents), but also pushed into unambiguously Georgian territory, as far south as Gori. Bush made sharp criticisms of the Russians (though did not mention Putin), the UN called for an immediate end to fighting, and Sarkozy quickly flew to Moscow, hoping to use an increasingly legendary diplomatic charm to help Russia weigh its options.
But no threats of action have come out, except faint hints at booting Russia from the G-8 (which Mr. McCain was planning on doing anyway). Much talk abounds of the diplomatic and military weakness of the US because of Iraq, but the US would not have been able to do much besides declare war against the Russians anyway. Right now, Georgia is simply not worth it, and the Russians knew that.
Russia ordered a halt after conquering about half of the country, but is still quite willing to shoot Georgians that resist their occupation, and has made no plans to pull out. They are in negotiations with Sarkozy and the EU at the moment.
Now, this all is very interesting. Some questions arise:
1) Who started it, and why?
2) What will NATO's immediate response be?
3) What is the fate of the Georgian territories?
4) What does this mean for NATO expnasionism?
5) Will Russia's relationship with the West change in the long-term?
I will do what I can with these questions. Other questions about how this will affect US domestic politics and the November election arise, but the intuitive answer is that not much will happen--there is an unambiguously correct side for each candidate to take. I might make a later post about this anyway.
1) It remains unclear who started it, given that both sides have a fair amount of interest in starting it, given a few preconditions. The Georgians would have been happy to exploit or even fabricate Ossetian violence to reclaim the region, but only if they thought the Russians would not get involved. Is there any reason to think so? Putin's presence in Beijing might have made them think the Russians would have been impotent to respond, and they may have predicted a rapid victory. But besides that, nothing about Russian behavior shows obvious weakness or preoccupation. Why would the Georgians would not wait until they were NATO members--or at least had an expected membership date? Trying to assault Ossedia now, without a clear sign of Russian restraint, would seem foolish.
On the other hand, the Russians have a lot to lose from waiting. NATO's expansion is creeping too close for comfort. The last thing the Russians want is a second front from NATO in their south, or (perhaps more importantly) total NATO control of the Black Sea, which would be made possible by Ukranian and Georgian inclusion. If the Russians want to head off such inclusions, they have many options, and have already employed some; they may now be looking to scare the West into leaving their sphere alone--why now? Note that NATO is one of the most terrifying military alliances in the world because of a single clause in the Charter: Article 5, which states that an attack on one country would be considered an attack on all (this was used only once, in the Sept. 11th attacks on the US). But they may also be looking to lock in control over Ossedia and Abkhazia--Russia is currently a fledging-enough regional power that small influence gains are worth it. But it is rather clear from a brief topological survey that inclusion of these territories (or separation of them from Georgia) would give Russia much physical security--Russia's border with Georgia is a solid line of Caucasus mountians. The most likely explanation is that the Russians indeed encouraged a South Ossetian incident such that they might test Georgia's and NATO's resolve to fight. The result has been a great blow to Western influence in the South Caucasus region, and a new sign of US weakness in a "Cold War Lite."
I will note that the possibility remains that there was no subversive action--that a few Ossedians simply got upset at some small incident and started firing artillery, and the whole mess spiralled out of control. But it's unlikely.
2) When I first heard about this five days ago, I said "NATO should really have an emergency session over this," and indeed they have. The meeting didn't do much, but they took a stand that they really needed to: they called for a return to status quo ante (that is, Russian and Georgian troops both out of the region), condemned Russia but not Georgia, and affirmed support for Georgia's attempts to assert its recognized sovereignty over the region. NATO, far from abandoning Georgia for potentially foolish action, has stood by it (making this look perhaps like a World War I spiral scenario, which may be part of the reason the Russians were so quick to accept a cease-fire).
3) The fate of the Georgian territories is highly unclear. Even if the Russians pull back, the Georgian military has probably taken a beating, and is scared stiff. It will not be able to physically assert its authority over its breakaway provinces again. That said, if the Georgians do join NATO, the Russians will know that another stunt like this would risk a declaration of war, which they won't be able to afford if Bush manages to install anti-missile batteries in Eastern Europe. Ossetia and Abkhazia are just not worth that kind of risk. The fate of these regions depends largely on the next few weeks of diplomatic talk, and Russia's concern with trying to save its image. But its reputation is already tarnished and the West is already irritated--pulling back completely and leaving the mess alone would mean accepting diplomatic sunk costs to a foolish move that the Russians may feel they have bought too deeply into.
4) NATO expansionism is unlikely to alter its course, unless it is to speed up. The members of NATO said that their considerations of Georgia as a member have not changed. The Georgian ambassador to NATO chided them slightly by saying that this was a consequence of cowing to Russia's threats in April over a fast-track plan for membership, and Bush has suggested that NATO take a stronger stance on its acceptance of Georgia as a response to the Russian incursion, but it's likely that Georgia is likely to go through the same long and (now excruciating) process that most countries do, as is the Ukraine. Far from frightened by the Russians, NATO might be emboldened by this action into agreeing with more aggressive factions (like Bush and Sarkozy) into seeing Russia as a reemerging threat that needs to be aggressively contained.
5) The West has been using a "hedge" strategy with Russia for some time, Bush included. Warm words, joint military exercizes, and a crucial oil trade have kept relations on both sides friendly. The West has hoped to "socialize" Russia, much like they feel they have begun to "socailize" the Chinese (and, luckily for them, the Olympics are a good sign in this direction). But Russia has grown aggressive in the past few years, and Putin's iron grip over the country (which is quite happy to be so gripped) has not faltered--this trend is not going to reverse on its own. The West is likely to start to become worried enough about the Russians that a Hedge strategy will give way to full-blown containment. Unlike the Chinese, the Russians can be largely contained with trade restrictions and alliance expansion. But after such a quick turnaround from Soviet Union to Soviet Putin, the West may be scratching their heads in exasperation, wondering how they might teach the Russians to just get along.
On another interesting note, I cannot seem to find anything by the Chinese on the incident, who are probably quite grateful that they have the Olympics as an excuse to ignore completely an incident where they might otherwise be asked ot take sides between their greatest economic trading partner and their greatest military partner.
As a closing note: The situation is changing by the hour, some of this may already be out of date. But I will try to keep updated.