Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili made a terrible miscalculation when on the night of 7-8 August he launched a massive artillery assault on the town of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. This is a town that was virtually absent of any military targets. The Georgian president who has had to be reigned in before was elected on a platform of securing the territorial integrity of Georgia and , in particular dealing with the de facto breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Perhaps he thought he might draw the West into the conflict enough to deal with any Russian response. He has, let us hope, made a terrible miscalculation.
Like all conflicts in that region the problems in South Ossetia are rooted in the ethnic history of the region with South Ossetians having allegiance with their ethnic kinsmen in North Ossetia and preferring either autonomy or links with Russia to rule by Georgia.
Georgia however sees South Ossetia as historically part of its territory and it was this issue which brought the Georgian president to power.
If the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili calculated that any Russian military response to his attack on South Ossetia would bring an immediate and robust Western response then he is likely to, and should, find himself disappointed. Although Georgia is a NATO candidate it is not yet a NATO member and Western leaders will be well aware that Saakashvili himself directly provoked the current escalation and that he is not exactly a model democratic leader. His attempt at a military enforcement of Georgian will against a territory seeking autonomy should garner little support from Western leaders who, let us not forget, supported Kosovan moves towards independence from Serbia.
No doubt the Russians have a wider agenda in launching what now begins to look like a very disproportionate response to Georgian miscalculation. They have been uneasy for long time about NATO expansion in their back garden and the opportunity to stamp their mark on Georgia and give a message to other local states while being able to claim that they are protecting South Ossetians is something of a gift. This no doubt goes some way to explain their cold shouldering of recent calls by Georgia for a ceasefire.
The West and NATO have no strategic interest in being drawn into this conflict though as long as Russia shows no inclination to actual substantial direct invasion of core Georgian territory. Russia must know that while it will be condemned for its present actions the risks of a wider conflagration would rise spectacularly if it was seen to be attempting a controlling invasion of Georgia itself. Were that to happen the West would be forced to consider much wider strategic issues and there is a danger that an already serious conflict could become very grave indeed. It should be remembered that it is through Georgian territory that a major oil pipeline runs westward and in this sense Georgia has great strategic value for the west.
Now is the time for cool heads in the West. The Georgian president must be criticised for the actions which escalated this conflict and the Russians no less condemned for their brutal and exploitative response. However for as long as the conflict confines largely to South Ossetia we must stay on the sidelines and press both parties to pursue peaceful resolution; hard as that may now be to achieve. At the same time it must be made clear to Russia that the West has strategic interests that would be threatened and which would need to be defended if it seeks to escalate further and invade the sovereign territory of Georgia itself.
Georgia meanwhile must be told in no uncertain terms that candidacy for NATO membership comes with serious responsibilities and must include not making unprovoked military attacks on civilians.