Why Putin Went to War, and What Happens Next

On a concert podium set up last week in the ruins of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, Russia's greatest conductor took a deep breath of smoke-scented air and raised his baton. Valery Gergiev, a native Ossetian and godfather to Vladimir Putin's younger daughter, launched into a passionate rendition of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony as Russian troops looked on from their armored personnel carriers. Millions more Russians watched via satellite link. Officially, the concert was a tribute to the victims of this month's fighting in the breakaway republic. But to many Russians, the concert was freighted with political symbolism. For viewers with an eye for such things, it was a mirror image of Leonard Bernstein's rendition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the fallen Berlin wall in December 1989. Gergiev was playing for dead Ossetians, no doubt—but for many, he was also marking the symbolic end to Russia's post-cold-war retreat. And, indeed, this triumphalist turn in the aftermath of its lightning invasion of Georgia earlier this month suggests that after almost 20 years of humiliation, Russia has finally recovered what it has been so longing for: respect. "We do not wish to aggravate the international situation," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a group of Red Army veterans in Kursk recently. "We simply want respect for our state, for our people, for our values."

Such a goal was the hallmark of Vladimir Putin's two terms as president. Ever since he came to power in 2000, Putin, now prime minister, has dreamed of reversing the decline in Russia's power over its own backyard. But while he talked a big game, harking back to the rhetoric of Soviet and tsarist Russian imperialism, Russia's actual power shrank dramatically. Between 2000 and 2004, pro-Moscow regimes in Ukraine and Georgia were replaced by pro-Western ones. NATO expanded to include the Baltics, in clear violation of security guarantees that Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, claimed were given to him in the 1990s. And Russia has proved to be powerless in stopping the United States from stationing missile defense radars and missile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The war in Ossetia is all about drawing a line under further NATO expansion—and sending a strong signal to Georgia, Ukraine and Europe that Russia won't be pushed around. And from the moment Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, Russia's neighbors started to take its threats more seriously. The invasion marked the end of Russia's browbeaten, humiliated post-cold-war era and the beginning of a new, more assertive, more imperial Russia. What will Russia's next move be? In Georgia, according to Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy chief of Russia's General Staff, Russia will establish a "security zone along the administrative border of South Ossetia" that will include 18 strongpoints manned by Russian peacekeepers. Just where that border runs will be defined by Russia. On the ground last week, Russian backhoes were seen digging in just north of the Georgian city of Gori—well beyond the old front line, and close enough to Georgia's main east-west road to cut Georgia in half within minutes.

What worries Russia's neighbors now is that the messy breakup of the Soviet Union left millions of ethnic Russians stranded in other post-Soviet states. Ukraine is 17 percent ethnic Russian; Estonia and Latvia nearly 40 percent; Kazakhstan 26.1 percent. And there are signs the Kremlin is systematically reaching out to these Russian-speaking communities through a range of lavishly funded cultural programs designed to boost Russia's soft power in the region. Other programs are more overtly political: the Kremlin-backed annual Foros Forum convenes in Crimea, a majority ethnic Russian region in Ukraine, and aims to "shape a new generation of young Russian politicians," according to one of the organizers, Duma deputy Sergei Markov. A selection of young activists from Kremlin-created youth groups like Nashi and the Youth Guards join the leaders and activists of Ukrainian pro-Russian movements to listen to lectures by the likes of Aleksandr Dugin, a leading light of the Eurasia movement, which preaches a Russian-led power block as an alternative to the West. "People gather to support our fraternal Ukrainian nation, which is groaning under the pressure of NATO," says Gennady Basov, leader of the nationalist Russian Bloc Party, a pro-Moscow pressure group based in Crimea.

If Russia invaded Ossetia to end Georgian hopes of NATO membership, could Crimea be next? While he was president, Putin spoke of "dismembering" Ukraine if it continued to pursue its dreams of NATO membership. Then, the Ukrainians dismissed the threat as so much hot air. Now it no longer seems such an idle threat. "Of course Ukraine is easy to split—it is two different countries," says Basov, who also heads Russian Choice, a campaign for recognition of Russian as an official language, and for Russian language schools in Crimea. "The east's economy depends on Russia, the west's depends on Europe; the east is Russian-speaking and Orthodox, and the west is Ukrainian-speaking and Roman Catholic."

Ukraine's government was rattled by the fear that Russia's occupation of Georgia would inspire secessionism in the Crimea. The leadership immediately ordered a survey of how many Crimeans had Russian passports (dual nationality is illegal under Ukrainian law). The count turned up only about 6,000, out of a Russian population of more than 1 million. And, reassuringly for Kiev, support for rejoining Russia has slipped from more than 60 percent in the late 1990s to about 25 percent now, according to Vladimir Kozarin, deputy mayor of Sevastopol, a majority-Russian Crimean port city.

NATO has been deeply divided over how to respond to this threat to potential future members. Germany and Italy—not by coincidence two of Russia's biggest gas customers—sought to keep what German Chancellor Angela Merkel called "an open dialogue." George W. Bush gave unambiguous support to Tbilisi and threatened Russia with "serious consequences" if it did not withdraw from Georgia. The Poles immediately signed up to a U.S. plan to station antimissile defense rockets on their territory—drawing an immediate threat from Russia's Nogovitsyn that "Poland, by deploying [the system], is exposing itself to a nuclear strike—100 percent."

But the far more immediate danger is to Russia itself. In the wake of the Georgian conflict, the Russian Stock Exchange took one of its biggest hits of the past decade. It dropped nearly 6 percent in a single day. Investors' greatest fear is of a new era of military confrontation between Russia and its neighbors. In the meantime, Medvedev's ambitious agenda for reform has been hijacked by Putin's ambitions. Medvedev, when he came to office, spoke of ending Russia's culture of "legal nihilism," extortion and corruption. Just last month Medvedev told Russian bureaucrats to stop "terrorizing" businessmen with enforcement of petty regulations and demands for bribes; he also promised to reform the justice system and property rights. But just as Medvedev was getting traction, and feeling a little more confident in his role as president, he found himself mugged by history, in the form of Putin and a small, festering little post-Soviet conflict that blew up into a full-scale war.

More profound, the "war has intensified a conservative backlash in Russia," says Lilia Shevtsova of Moscow's Carnegie Center. "The country is now highly unified against the West." Even traditional liberals have lined up to blast the Georgian aggression. In that respect, the war has escalated a two-decade-long internal debate over whether Russia would join the international community of values, broadly defined as the West, or go over to the dark, anarchic world of rogue states and totalitarian regimes. The war won't decide that debate either way, but if it pushes Russia into a spiraling confrontation with its neighbors and the West, it will mark a turning point in which Russia veered off in a new and unpredictable direction.