MUCH THAT had been in the category of speculation about modern Russia hardened over the weekend into ugly fact. Many had suspected that Vladimir Putin never intended to allow a mere constitution to force him to cede power after eight years in the Kremlin, and the president-turned-prime-minister certainly seemed to be in charge of Russia's invasion of neighboring Georgia. Many had theorized that a nation willing, in the service of imperial ambition, to manipulate oil and gas supplies, impose trade blockades, unleash cyber-attacks, and sponsor or at least tolerate assassinations of enemies abroad might not hesitate to wield outright military force; that supposition, too, was confirmed. Having watched Mr. Putin's destruction of a free press in Russia, some might have wondered how far he would go in distorting reality. His brazen invocation of the Big Lie to justify Russia's aggression -- accusing Georgia of "complete genocide" -- provided an answer.
The question now is how the United States and Europe will respond to a reality that can no longer be denied. In the short term, as the Bush administration has said, the allies' goal must be an end to Russia's attacks on Georgia and a cease-fire in the disputed Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That should be followed by the introduction to those provinces of a neutral peacekeeping force -- no one can take seriously any longer the fiction of Russian "peacekeepers" -- and international mediation. Russian objection would, if nothing else, provide one more clarifying moment.
This weekend's fighting was provoked by Russian-advised South Ossetian separatists; Georgia foolishly responded to the provocation; and Russia was ready to roll in with a large armored force. Does Russia now want to advance further into Georgia? Or does it want to keep Georgia's democracy in a perpetual state of tension? Neither is acceptable, and the West should be formulating policies for either possibility.
In the longer term, the West will have to decide whether to continue its effort to soothe and placate Mr. Putin, as if he were a petulant child who could be bought off with candy and words of praise, or whether to rise to the geopolitical challenge his regime poses. Separate European nations (especially Germany) have thought that they could save themselves by cutting separate deals with Russia for oil and gas. They have tried to avert their eyes as Russia cut oil supplies to show its displeasure with European Union members such as the Czech Republic or Lithuania. Will they now unite to strengthen their position?
Meanwhile, as nations on Russia's periphery such as Georgia and Ukraine have turned west for help in safeguarding their independence, the West has responded ambivalently, offering sympathy but often little else. Russia's theory no doubt is that its aggression in Georgia will scare the West further away. Will that theory, too, harden into ugly truth, or will the West understand that it cannot buy peace by tendering the sovereignty of vulnerable nations?