Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Arrives in North Ossetia (BBC) Moscow was disconcertingly taken by surprise with the sharp escalation of hostilities in South Ossetia last Friday.
The main blunder, however, was political, as the Kremlin seriously overestimated its ability to dominate the situation in the conflict zone.
The catch is that Russia cannot maintain its ambivalent stance of supporting the secessionist quasi-states and acknowledging that they remain parts of Georgia; nor can it keep pretending that it is not a party to the conflict but merely the guarantor of a non-existent peace process. Prior to the war, Moscow had been very irritated by Eduard Kokoity’s corrupt regime, but now to all intents and purposes it owns South Ossetia and has not only to provide aid but to resolve the status issue. Medvedev is forced to make decisions that he is very uncomfortable with and to place them in a new strategic line for the Caucasus that he is not really qualified to draw, while Putin takes charge over practical matters like distributing money and resources. Spoils from this “victory” would hasten Russia’s drift from democracy, worsen its investment climate, and add more tension to relations with the West and with Ukraine. Diplomats may contemplate a return to the status quo ante, but Russia has changed in the course of this entirely unnecessary war, and the damage cannot be undone.