Analysis: Georgia at Disadvantage vs. Russia

Russia and Georgia are at war in all but name. After a dramatic day that saw Georgian government forces overrunning much of the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia, Russia sent in 150 tanks and an unknown number of troops to support Russian peacekeepers in the province—as well as to give vital military aid to the Ossetian rebels. By nightfall, Ossetian sources claimed that rebel troops and Russian forces had won back control of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Both sides have blamed the other for the sudden escalation of hostilities. Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Friday that "Russia has been trying to destabilize Georgia for years," and added that the latest hostilities were an attempt to oust Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili, "the Western-educated, pro-Western head of the most democratic country in the former Soviet Union … he is a thorn in Russia's side." However, it was the Georgian side that launched a full-scale military assault on Tskhinvali on Thursday night after days of escalating skirmishes.

The irony of this vicious little battle is that Saakashvili and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev could be close allies. They certainly have a lot in common—both are young, dynamic leaders who trained as lawyers before going into politics. They are far more westward-looking than their predecessors, and both of them are passionate about rooting out corruption and introducing the rule of law to their reluctant countrymen.

But instead of cooperating, the two men are on a collision course, locked in a confrontation that only one of them can win. In a sense, both leaders have been hijacked by history. South Ossetia was a festering conflict left over from the chaotic days of the Soviet Union's breakup. For nearly two decades, the Kremlin has supported Ossetia and Abkhazia, another tiny rebel enclave, with money and military supplies as part of an old-fashioned divide-and-rule policy designed to keep Georgia weak. Medvedev inherited that policy from Vladimir Putin—and now has little choice but to follow it through. Medvedev has been fighting the "wimp factor" ever since he took over as president in May; he cannot afford to look weaker than his tough-talking mentor.

Just hours after Georgian troops launched an all-out grab for the rebel capital Tskhinvali, killing at least 10 Russian peacekeeping troops, Medvedev appeared on national television looking grim-faced. "We will not tolerate the death of our citizens going unpunished," he said, banging his palm on the table for emphasis. As he spoke, columns of Russian tanks rolled across the border into South Ossetia and Russian jets bombed a Georgian military airbase near the capital, Tbilisi, raising the specter of all-out war.

Saakashvili also can't afford to lose. He came to power in a landslide victory in 2004 promising to bring back the rebel provinces. But as Russia has grown more oil rich and assertive, so Moscow's diplomatic and practical support for the breakaway Georgian enclaves has grown—and the chances of Tbilisi ever recovering them has shrunk. Most citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been issued Russian passports and are eligible for Russian pensions; in April, the Russian Duma passed a law authorizing official ties with the rebel republics. At the same time, NATO caved in to Russian pressure and declined to give Georgia the clear invitation to membership it had sought. "The message Saakashvili got from that was: it's now or never," says one senior Western diplomat in Moscow not authorized to speak on the record. "The assault [on Tskhinvali] was a gamble."

It's a gamble that could backfire badly. Saakashvili may have made exactly the mistake Russia wanted him to make—giving Kremlin hawks the excuse to fill Ossetia with Russian tanks, bloody the Georgian Army's nose and destroy his chances of re-election. Saakashvili's appeals to the West for help are unlikely to elicit any practical response, other than diplomatic hand-wringing. There's little doubt that tiny Georgia has little chance against the might of the refurbished Russian Army in an all-out war. So far, one of the brightest young leaders of the former Soviet space is set to destroy the other.