THE OUTBREAK of fighting between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia was sudden but not surprising. Conflict has been brewing between Moscow and its tiny, pro-Western neighbor for months. The flashpoints are two breakaway Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- the latter being the scene of the latest fighting. The skirmishing and shelling around Georgian villages that prompted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to launch an offensive against the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, may or may not have been a deliberate Russian provocation, to which Russia's tank and air assault was the inevitable follow-up.
Russian military probes, always denied b y Moscow, have been frequent in recent years. But certainly the deeper source of tension between the two countries is Russia's insistence on maintaining hegemony in the Caucasus. Georgia's democratically elected government has accepted U.S. military and economic aid, supported the mission in Iraq and pursued NATO membership. Moscow will not tolerate such independence -- even by a relatively poor country of just 4.6 million people.
At its summit in Bucharest, Romania, in April, NATO offered Georgia eventual membership. This was not the more concrete promise that Georgia and the Bush administration had wanted. But Tbilisi and Washington settled for less in deference to European NATO members who wanted to avoid inflaming Russia. It didn't work, because Moscow responded by increasing its ties to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including by beefing up the "peacekeeping" forces it maintains in both regions under the settlement that concluded Moscow-backed secessionist wars in the early 1990s. Even before these latest maneuvers, Russia had issued passports to most inhabitants of the two breakaway regions, which is why it claims to be defending its own people now.
It's doubtful, though not unthinkable, that Russia plans to conquer all of Georgia. But its objectives are no less cynical for that. Simply by keeping the country in a constant state of territorial division and conflict, it hopes to show NATO that Georgia is too unstable for membership -- thus giving Georgia no choice but to submit to Moscow's "influence." Probably Russia intends to administer a quick military "punishment" (as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described Moscow's war aim) to Mr. Saakashvili, and then restore some version of the unstable status quo ante.
This is a grave challenge to the United States and Europe. Ideally, the U.N. Security Council would step in, authorizing a genuine peacekeeping force to replace the Russian one that has turned into a de facto occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But a Russian veto rules that out. Thus, the United States and its NATO allies must together impose a price on Russia if it does not promptly change course.
The principles at stake, including sovereignty and territorial integrity, apply well beyond the Caucasus. To abandon Georgia and its fragile democratic Rose Revolution would send a terrible signal to other former Soviet and Warsaw Pact republics that to Moscow's dismay have achieved or are working toward democracy and fully independent foreign policies. The West has made that sort of mistake before and must not do so again.