In an October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;” but he also went on to say that “perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” In the time that has passed since Russian troops entered Georgia, Russia’s behavior has perhaps lifted some of the mystery surrounding Russian intentions vis a vis Georgia especially now that these forces are apparently withdrawing – and the key does appear to be Russia’s perception of that national interest.
As revealed by its actions in Georgia, Russia’s goals include:
Eliminating as much of Georgia's military capability as possible
Embarrassing the U.S. and NATO over their inability to prevent Russian actions
Reminding other neighboring states that were formerly allies or a part of the Soviet Union of their vulnerability to similar Russian action
Building up its perceived role as the leading challenger/competitor/rival to the United States for both its domestic and international audiences
Enough information has also emerged, and continues to emerge, regarding the Russian military operation to make it clear that Russia was probably preparing an invasion of Georgia when the incident began. Saakashvilli's decision to order Georgian forces into South Ossetia simply allowed Russian forces to accelerate own plans under the cover of responding to Georgia's initiative. The sizable presence of Russian forces in the region, the cyber attacks in the days leading up to the conflict, on top of the pattern of incidents between Russia and Georgia over the previous months of 2008, all fit the pattern established by Russia in 1999 when Moscow sent its troops into its own breakaway region of Chechnya.
It is also clear that at the response by the United States and its allies to Russia’s actions will need to be clearly defined and even rather robust. In addition to winning greater acceptance of U.S. anti-missile system plans in Europe (as in Poland) the Georgian armed forces will have to replace the sizable equipment losses inflicted by Russian forces. However, this assistance will have to be accompanied by extensive training across the full spectrum of military activity – not just how to use the equipment, but improving the command and control of Georgian forces and the quality of the strategic direction provided by Georgia’s political and military leadership in order to avoid any future miscalculations on the scale of this recent activity. The performance of Georgian forces calls to mind the evaluation by Prussia’s von Moltke of the American armies engaged in our 1861-1865 civil war as consisting of nothing more than “armed mobs.” The Russian forces appear better only by contrast (and the fact of their overwhelming numbers). It is fortunate for both Georgia and Russia that the fighting was not more intense.