The response from the West to Putin’s occupation of Georgian territory is to engage in ineffective diplomacy. Medvedev agreed to withdraw Russia’s forces, but they are still in Georgia with no military force capable of rejecting them in sight. Russian forces took particular trouble to take Poti the main Georgian sea port on the Black Sea, which they still hold.
The Western media is convinced that somehow their cameras and interviewers and news-readers are going to persuade Vladimir Putin to stop his advance into the territory of other countries, and that the supranational game, at some moment yet to be arrived at, will embroil the Russians, and bring them to the negotiating table.
But there is another possibility. Putin’s main effort and concerns have to be directed where he can see the most strategic advantage. The Americans are completely bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the EU-obsessed Europeans are congenitally incapable of coherent action of any kind at all. Putin in weighing up the situation, must see that he can achieve a lot more territory yet for what will probably be very cheap moves militarily.
The West believes that Putin will pay a price politically for being involved in brutal warfare, but as Chechnya showed, such is his speciality. The Russian people understand that warfare has to be brutal, while those in Western Europe imagine that war can still be done nicely, once all the war criminals are captured and put on trial at The Hague. The political equation for Putin could well be the opposite to that imagined by Western politicians trying to portray him as a ‘brute’. For Russians, recapturing lost territory and prestige might prove to be immensely popular.
Putin, in these circumstances, is looking at the military and political equivalent of an open goal. It will surely be too much to resist.
Taking a map would indicate to anyone that the key strategic point for Putin to try to get hold of next, in the near proximity to Georgia is The Crimea. The Crimea once Russian, became part of the Ukraine in 1954. This was no real problem for Russia until the Orange Revolution took place in 2004 and Russians who owned many prized pieces of land there have since been worried about political expropriation. In strategic terms that is as nothing compared to the potential loss of the Port Of Sevastopol, the base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, under an agreement which ends in 2017. If the Ukraine become part of NATO, the loss of Sebastopol would become inevitable.
If Putin were to wait until the Ukraine became part of NATO, he would face military consequences if he seized Sebastopol, with NATO countries committed to fighting him. But as the Ukraine is only talking to NATO at this stage with nothing definite arranged, Putin could seize Sebastopol and make it effectively Russian territory once more, and probably face only token Ukrainian resistance.
The Ukraine depends totally on Russia for its energy needs, and Putin has already demonstrated that he is willing to cut off the gas. Within The Crimea the pro-Russian party is still popular, and resistance locally might also be muted.
Putin could progress to The Crimea by land, which is not an easy route requiring passage through narrow gorges, but an approach by sea would also be possible from Russian Black Sea coastal ports. By seizing Poti, and destroying the Georgian navy, potential resistance from that quarter has already been neutralised.
Whether Putin does keep his army marching west or not is unknowable, but the thought must be in his mind. If he has any strategic notion, it will be The Crimea that is in his mind’s eye and the potential future loss of the Port Of Sebastopol that would motivate him to take further risks. He could tidy up Georgia’s oil pipeline later.