The Russian government is a thug government. Russia understands power. Russia is not interested in any plight of any poor South Ossetians. That is weak fiction.* South Ossetia has been, for years, a low level ethnic skirmish. It's only strategic importance is as a weak Russian excuse for military action against Georgia. Russia's possible goals:
1. Show their unhesitating willingness to use military power in the region. Send message: It doesn't pay for smaller and weaker nations to stand up to us.
2. Expose the weakness of NATO. Send message: NATO cannot protect you from us.
3. Possibly expand Russia's borders via incorporating South Ossetia and the northwest Georgian region of Abkhazia into Russia; or, possibly expand Russia via incorporating all of Georgia into Russia.
Russia's eventual move is unclear. Their tanks are south of the Caucasus Mountains; they control the major mountain pass; their eventual action may depend on unfolding events. Russia's thug government is not a good bet to hesitate if they can gobble up a weaker nation.
4. Play mafia by demanding a share of regional oil profits.
Russia has already attempted to bomb the brand new oil and gas pipelines in South Georgia. These pipelines (partnered by British Petroleum) route oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, to the Mediterranean and thence to world markets. These pipelines link the oil and gas of the "Stans" - such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - with western energy markets while bypassing Russia. Previously, the Stans had to route their oil and gas through Russia, and paid a high price for doing so: losing up to 2/3 of their profits in the process. Russia is playing mafia:
We demand our share of your profit. You must continue to send your oil and gas to market through us.
A State Dept. official who is "a friend of Powerline":
Georgia is important to the West for more than just political reasons. It is an incredibly strategic location. That pipeline is an independent source of energy for the West, and an independent source of income for countries in the Caspian Basin. It allows them to have an independent foreign policy.
Robert Kagan, in WaPo, focuses on even bigger picture Russian strategy:
Putin's aggression against Georgia ... is primarily a response to the "color revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia in 2003 and 2004, when pro-Western governments replaced pro-Russian ones. What the West celebrated as a flowering of democracy the autocratic Putin saw as geopolitical and ideological encirclement.
Ever since, Putin has been determined to stop and, if possible, reverse the pro-Western trend on his borders. He seeks not only to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO but also to bring them under Russian control. Beyond that, he seeks to carve out a zone of influence within NATO, with a lesser security status for countries along Russia's strategic flanks.
Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia's attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even -- though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities -- the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives.
The next president had better be ready.
Russia further expands their attack beyond South Ossetia, illuminating the definitive lie that South Ossetia was ever a legitimate trigger for hostilities. Russia overcomes and occupies a southwest Georgia military base near the Black Sea (and near the oil and gas pipelines). Panic in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, as Georgian government reacts to possibility of Russian attack on Tbilisi itself. link
* Barack bought into Russia's weak fiction about South Ossetia. The result was Barack's original nonstatement statement (my summary):
John McCain is unfairly prejudiced in favor of Georgia; he is trying to divide us into good guys and bad guys. Instead of that, Georgia and Russia should come together and sing We Are the Ones.24 hours later, Barack figured out Let's all come together and sing was the wrong side of this issue. He maybe also got some poll results, and figured out he was taking a political hit for holding that position. Barack thus reversed himself and issued an anti-Russian invasion statement.
America has never seen a candidate as unprepared for office as Barack Obama.