Ethnic diversity in the Caucasus (Source)
The Russian devastation of Georgian positions in the break-away region of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and, now, the Caucasian country's heartland signal a new reality not only in this part of the world but in Russia's role elsewhere.
As so many commentators have pointed out, this was the first time that we have seen Russia's military confront regular armed forces, as part of an international conflict, since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. One could nitpick and point to the fighting in Chechnya, but here Russia faced a separatist insurgency carried out by irregular though effective bands of fighters. Russia's performance in that earlier conflict, however, was interpreted by many as a symptom of its military's disintegration.
Now, Russia has asserted its supremacy, before its doorstep - in the air, sea, and on (the rather treacherous) land. It faced down a modern fighting force by a small but rising power, whose army has been supplied by Ukraine, the US, and Israel (until recently). Interestingly enough, although the news showed up only on a few tickers several weeks ago, Israel suspended its arms shipments (primarily UAVs) to Georgia - probably after Russian pressure.
After the diplomatic defeat in Kosovo, which the Russians have always argued should also mean a green light for Abkhazian and Ossetian independence from Georgia, Putin and Medvedev have upped the ante - they are talking about an outright annexation of these regions to Russia. The South Caucasus, in retrospect, was a red line for Russia, beyond which it would not allow any more encroachments. With Georgia's foolish decision to launch a preemptive attack on the separatist positions in South Ossetia, Russia has seized the opportunity to take an even larger bite.
The implications for the former Soviet republics are clear - states from Turkmenistan to Ukraine (and their would-be allies in the West or elsewhere) must now own up to the fact that whatever support is delivered to them from afar better be significant if they are to assert themselves against Russia. For the weaker states among these republics, this will mean toeing a more neutral line between Russia and the West. The belligerent factions in Azerbaijan pressing for a renewal of hot war with Armenia, over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, may have been served notice. This would be a dramatic reconfiguration of the South Caucasus, with the the "TBC pipeline powers" folding their cards to Gazprom - though it remains to be seen how Turkey, another state whose current military capabilities in international conflict are still untested will react this state of affairs. To be sure, the reduction of Georgia to a rump state around Tblisi would be good news for the other resource-poor state in the region - the Republic of Armenia.
For larger former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, Russia's actions will accelerate coalition-building with the West and investment in their armed forces. Apparently, the Ukrainian navy is not standing idly by as Russia attempts to blockade the Georgian coast, to prevent Ukrainian arms dealers from shipping weapons there. But it remains to be seen how much force, if any, Ukraine will be able to wield against Russia in this round.
Beyond its immediate sphere of influence on its frontiers, Russia has made explicit its rejection of an international system that it perceives as stacked in the West's favor. It has also made the Western European powers preaching to it look like paper tigers. Although much of Russia's rhetoric in this conflict has been directed at the US, which it blames for inciting Georgia's attack in the first place, it has become clear that the Americans decided early on that Georgia was not worth an overt confrontation with Russia. No doubt, this will bring joy to many Russian analysts and to others riding the bandwagon of America's decline. They should be careful not to overstep the new borders demarcated for them.