Vladimir Putin, who came to office brooding over the wounds of a humiliated Russia, this week offered proof of its resurgence. So far, the West has been unable to check his thrust into Georgia. He is making decisions that could redraw the map of the Caucasus in Russia's favor – or destroy relationships with Western powers that Russia once sought as strategic partners.
If there were any doubts, the last week has confirmed that Putin, who became prime minister this spring after eight years as president, is running Russia, not his successor, President Dmitri Medvedev. And Putin is at last able to find relief from the insults that Russia suffered following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Georgia, in a way, is suffering for all that happened to Russia in the last 20 years,” said Alexander Rahr, a leading German foreign-policy scholar and a biographer of Putin.
With Russian troops poised on two fronts in Georgia, speculation abounds on what Putin really wants to do. He faces a range of options.
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Russia could settle for annexing the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – something its forces have largely accomplished.
Kremlin authorities have also spoken of bringing Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's president, to a war crimes tribunal for what they say were attacks on civilians in Tskhinvali last week.
A further push might permanently disable the Georgian military. The most extreme option would be occupying Georgia, a country with a population of 4.4 million and a centuries-old distrust of Russia, where Western nations have long planned to run an important oil pipeline.
But while the West may see an aggressive Russia, Putin feels embattled and encircled, said Sergei Markov, the director of Moscow's Institute for Political Studies, who has close relationships with officials in the Kremlin.
“Russia is in an extremely dangerous situation,” trapped between the obligation to protect Russian citizens and the risk of escalating into “a new Cold War” with the United States, Markov said.
Putin and his surrogates have forcefully made the case that Russia has acted only to defend its citizens.
In recent days, Putin has appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up, mingling with refugees on the border with South Ossetia – the very picture of a man of action.
By contrast, Medvedev is shown sitting at his desk in Moscow, giving ceremonial orders to the minister of defense.
“He is playing the game which is designed by Putin,” Rahr said.