The Bush administration says it wants a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Georgia. But could the decision to deploy U.S. military ships and planes on an ostensible humanitarian mission lead to war with Russia?
It's a very remote possibility, but not inconceivable.
"It's how these things often get started," said Marshall Goldman, a senior scholar for Russian studies at Harvard. "When we were kids, we called it a game of chicken, and to some extent that's what's happening, and it could get out of control."
The biggest limiting factor, Goldman quickly added, is that the U.S. military is already stretched so thin in Iraq and Afghanistan that it can do little more than send relief supplies to Georgia. And even if there were a confrontation with Russian forces, "I don't know where we're going to find troops to follow through should that become necessary," Goldman said.
On Thursday, Russia continued its operations in Georgia, where its troops already controlled a third of the country and were advancing toward Kutaisai, the second-largest city, with more than 100 tanks, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said. The Pentagon, however, said it saw no major Russian movement.
The week-old conflict over two pro-Russian regions is what James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation is calling "the most dramatic foreign policy event since 9/11." But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that there was no need for U.S. military action, although he warned that U.S.-Russian relations could be severely damaged unless Moscow retreats.
"The United States spent 45 years working very hard to avoid a military confrontation with Russia," Gates said. "I see no reason to change that approach today."
As two American C-17 jets with aid supplies landed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, President Bush made a point of stressing the military aspect of the mission and warned Russia not to impede relief efforts.
The White House rhetoric had grown stronger in recent days, largely in response to criticism the United States was doing too little to support Georgia, a democratic ally. Vice President Dick Cheney went so far as to say that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered' despite the very limited ability of the United States to respond.
"What it does, is run the risk of making us look like a paper tiger," Goldman said. "It could be very embarrassing."
Among the reasons for the intense interest in Georgia is a familiar one: oil.
Georgia has no appreciable oil of its own, but it is a transit route for two pipelines carrying more than 850,000 barrels a day to Europe from the Caspian Sea region of Central Asia. The West favored the Georgian routes because they bypassed Russia and Iran and provided direct access to an area once thought to contain as much oil as Saudi Arabia.
"One reason American companies looked at the Caspian in the 1990s is that it was non-Persian Gulf, non-OPEC oil," said Frank Verrastro, director of the energy program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. "It was a brand new basin with huge potential for oil and gas."
Although it has its own large reserves, Russia wants greater control over oil flowing from and through former Soviet bloc countries as pipelines are built to accommodate ever-growing demand. Georgia's pro-U.S. tilt potentially thwarted that control.
The Georgian pipelines, "if left to continue operating, would jeopardize the Russian monopoly of pipeline access from Central Asia," said Goldman, author of Petrostate: Putin, Power and the New Russia. "Whether that's cause enough to go to war, I don't know, but it's pretty clear to me the Russians were going to do everything they could to destabilize the area."
The Georgia crisis comes just as oil prices are dropping after an ease in tensions between Iran and the West. Oil hit $147 a barrel, and U.S. gas prices soared to more than $4 a gallon in July, partly as a result of fears Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities. But after Iran resumed negotiations and Americans cut their gas consumption, prices began falling to the current $114 a barrel.
Turmoil in the oil-rich Caucasus region — which accounts for about 1 percent of the global oil output — "should have had a bigger effect on gas prices than it has," Verrastro said. "That leads me to think the market supply is adequate. But I wouldn't be surprised if prices started going back up if this continues."
Although it has bombed Georgian cities, Russia has not damaged the pipelines, which carry some of Russia's own oil. But the Russians are once again making it clear that they don't like cooperation on energy — or anything else — between the West and former Soviet countries.
"I don't think there is any question," Verrastro said, "that they are sending a geopolitical signal that should be a shot across the bow for Georgia, Ukraine and others."
This report includes information from Times wires. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com.