In short, little related to this war has changed; despite the Russian military victory, neither side can really claim to have gained much. So what are we to make of the conflict? Four explanations for why the war occurred seem plausible. First, it may have been a “mistake” on Georgia’s part. It’s possible Saakashvili guessed wrong, thinking he could grab South Ossetia and get back under the West’s protection before Russia did anything. Second, the war may have been a “mistake” on the part of a Russia determined to remove Saakashvili from power. Perhaps Moscow underestimated what the international community’s reaction would be and/or overestimated the capabilities of the Georgian opposition to Saakashvili. Third, as I have suggested previously on this website, the war may have been an attempt by the Russians to send a costly “signal” about its concern with growing Western influence in the former Soviet republics–in particular, vis a vis Georgian or Ukrainian NATO membership. Finally, the war may have been the start of a series of aggressive moves by Russia to reclaim parts of its former empire by force, as John McCain seemed to suggest last fall.
With regard to this fourth possibility, however, nothing we’ve seensince the conclusion of the war suggests that the Russia-on-the-marchexplanation is remotely likely. Moreover, forthcoming research in thejournal Post-Soviet Affairsby University of Michigan professor William Zimmerman suggests thatRussian foreign policy elites’ conception of Russia’s appropriatesphere of influence is sensitive to the price of oil. Put another way,if Russia restrained itself from going all the way to Tbilisi lastsummer with oil at $147 per barrel, it seems unlikely we’ll see Russiantroops in Ukraine anytime soon.
The other three explanations for the war all seem potentially credible,but we currently lack the evidence to distinguish among them. There isan international fact-finding report under the direction of a Swissdiplomat due out in September; perhaps we will learn more then.