Things which aren’t clear to me:
1. That Russia has, as of press time, done anything worth objecting to. From a Russian POV, this is perfectly valid interpretation of events: Georgia made a military move against disputed territories where Russia believed it had interests, Russia repelled Georgia, Russia is now (to some undetermined extent) exacting a price from Georgia for doing so. Assuming Russia doesn’t now annex Georgia or something like that, this is a pretty typical pattern which conflicts take, and while war is bad, etc, I haven’t seen any gross violations of international norms. Most countries – to the extent they are capable – can’t go a few decades without doing the same sort of thing. Russia has done much worse in such a time frame, and so has the US, and a substantial portion of the world community, including Georgia. I’m not particularly fond of the jejune “yeah, well what about …?” change-the-subject school of argument; but in assessing how bad something is, recent history should be one’s measure, and the invasion of Iraq was clearly a much bigger and more radical violation of norms than this is. It doesn’t make everything anyone else does right, but it’s where you start if these things concern you.
Now, other things way yet happen, and other facts may yet come out, and other, less exculpatory POVs are, especially in an absence of reliable information, equally valid. However:
2. Outside of blogs, editorial pages, non-binding diplomatic responses, and other release valves for hot gas, I’m not sure any likely objection to Russian behavior amounts to anything. Nobody can force a country with 12,000 nuclear warheads to ignore what it feels are its vital interests, not even a country with 8,000 nuclear warheads. I have no doubt that there are very well-considered legal and moral arguments about how Russia has done a terrible thing, and I’m sure the World Police and International Relations Jesus will spurred into action by their eloquence and power. Similarly, I’m sure Russia doesn’t give a fuck, and Russia has the under-appreciated advantage of actually existing.
Moral and legal arguments, to the extent they are worth anything, are only to the extent they rest on a foundation of understanding how the world works, and on this foundational level – the simple playground realities of power politics – Georgia fucked up horribly. THOU SHALT NOT PICK FIGHTS THOU CAN NOT POSSIBLY WIN is a fundamental precept one needs to appreciate before any thrilling arguments about how things ought to be, because if your wrong about those noble thing you’re just wrong! wrong! wrong!; but if you’re wrong on the fundamentals you are (right!/wrong!) (x3) AND you have a huge boot jammed up your ass, which is arguably more significant, especially for your ass. I feel bad for Georgia, as – in my all-encompassing benevolence – I feel bad for losers everywhere, but I still can’t help noticing that they are among those who weren’t being very practical about their situation.
3. It’s not clear to me that having no particular Georgia/Caucasus policy, or even any formal guiding principles, is such a bad idea. Specific positions are useful in places where one’s interests are most engaged – formalized relationships and doctrines and cooperative organizations are useful in Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, and other places where stable, mature, and (especially) like-minded democracies congregate – but in places where you just aren’t that concerned, they can lead one into error, fighting to defend vaporous Principle where no concrete Interest lies. And by “error”, I am again referring to the “huge boot jammed up your ass” variety, which is the most egregious sort. “Promoting Democracy” is, like my aforementioned all-encompassing benevolence, a lovely thing of no use, and certainly not worth fighting a nuclear war over. The best argument for a concrete US interest in the Caucasus is “strategic energy reserves”, which is to say “energy reserves one would wish control in the event one goes to war to defend one’s interests in the Caucasus”, which seems a bit circular. Whatever interest the US may have there pales before the Russian interest, another fundamental consideration.
Now, lots of people are on TV declaring the importance of having firm principles on this issue, and how their positions are the firmest of all, but all these people are running for office, or have other justifications for wishing to sound bold and confident and knowledgeable, and being vague and noodley does not create this impression. OTOH, vague noodliness has definite strategic advantages, as it is very hard to pin one down and force one to abide by previous commitments (commitments one may have lived to regret) when one has taken no identifiable position and made no commitments. For fans of the graven tablet form: THOU SHALT NOT WRITE CHECKS THOU DOST NOT WANT CASHED. Or, for fans of the concrete example – think very seriously about making formal NATO promises to countries who can’t protect themselves and like to pick fights with Russia.
4. Finally, it’s not at all clear to me that Russia has “won” anything. No doubt it stokes Russian nationalism to stick it to those splitters in Georgia – as it stoked Georgian nationalism to stick it to South Ossitscalled and Abkhatotherplace – but it can, fairly or not, make you look like a bit of dick. They’ve successfully neutralized the Georgian Menace, so I’m sure they’ll sleep easier for that, and also demonstrated their ability to repel the not-really threats posed by countries with small, hand-me-down military forces. It depends on how Russia sees its place in the world, I suppose. If they are trying to get the Soviet Union back together, this would be the first step – though its not clear that things would turn out any better than they did last time. If they are trying to join the West, or at least have a cordial working relationship with it, they probably want to wind this thing down quickly.