Diplomatic efforts are continuing to secure the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what prompted the strong Russian response in a conflict that began in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia almost two weeks ago.
South Ossetia, along with another Georgian region, Abkhazia, declared independence from Georgia in the 1990s. Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili has vowed to bring both regions back into the fold, while Russia has been increasing its influence in the region, including stationing troops there.
On August 7, Georgian forces entered South Ossetia in an effort to take control of its capital, Tskhinvali.
Ronald Suny, from the University of Chicago, says the Georgian president felt it was the perfect time to act. "It was an opportune moment in this sense that [Russian Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin and George Bush were together at the Olympics. Dmitri Medvedev, the what I call 'proxy president' of Russia, was cruising down the Volga [river] and it looked like a quick move could be made. The Georgians could not have, of course, estimated that they would get away with this without some Russian response. Maybe a fait accompli, taking the city, setting up a government there would have in fact made the Russians hesitate," he said.
Suny and other experts say the Russians must have been waiting for such a move, because they reacted swiftly, massively and brutally. They drove the Georgian forces out of South Ossetia and moved deep into Georgian territory.
"My best guess about Saakashvili's thinking is, somehow, he believed - I think futilely and mistakenly - that the West, particularly his friend George Bush, would come to his aid in some way. But how they would come to his aid - they couldn't do it militarily - is a very difficult question," he said.
Senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have made clear Washington will not help Georgia militarily.
Robert Legvold from Columbia University says he does not believe President Saakashvili expected U.S. military help - although he says many Georgians did.
"What he did expect, I believe, was a far less aggressive Russian response, coupled with a far more aggressive political, diplomatic intervention on the part of the European Union, NATO and the United States. So, I think, he thought that, under those circumstances, a lesser Russian response, a more active political, diplomatic response from the West and a quick move on their [Georgian] part against what looked like a vulnerable target [Tskhinvali] - it would have amounted to a significant strategic advantage that he could move [act upon]. But all of that adds up - in all its parts - to a miscalculation," he said,
Analysts agree the massive Russian military response to Georgia's attempt to take the capital of South Ossetia was disproportionate.
Stephen Jones, an expert on the Caucasus from Mount Holyoke College [in Massachusetts] goes even further. "The Russian action was a big mistake, because they went beyond South Ossetia and they've launched a second front in Abkhazia, which, of course, opened them to severe criticism and a severe reaction from Western countries, because this was an aberration of international law, going into the sovereign territory of another country. It wasn't just the conflict zone - that is, it was going beyond that. So, what Russia did by this action, was really open up this whole conflict to the international gaze. I'm not sure ultimately that's what Russia wanted, because now the pressure is on Russia to accept a diplomatic solution," he said.
Diplomatic efforts are continuing to secure a full Russian military withdrawal from Georgia. Experts say, only then could Moscow and Tbilisi begin to tackle their major differences over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.