First, there's no illusion about who's running Russia. Vladimir Putin is clearly the effective head of state, flying from the Beijing Olympics to southern Russia to oversee military operations and to dominate Russian TV. The return of strongman rule to Russia, and particularly one who regards the demise of the Soviet Union as a historic catastrophe, is now a fact of international life to which we will all have to adjust to.
Second, Putin and his government are attempting to establish the legitimacy of a Russian sphere of influence that looks very much like a reestablishment of the old Soviet empire. This is the core of an enormously sophisticated information campaign that is having some success -- at least around Washington -- in appealing to the realpolitik crowd who look for excuses for inaction in the case of a Russian invasion of their democratic neighbor. The invasion of Georgia was accompanied by an information campaign based on the idea that Russia has a right to intervene anywhere that the "dignity" of Russian minorities is threatened. Since there are Russian minorities in every former Soviet state of the old empire, this is an attempt to establish a "sphere of influence" precedent that must chill newly independent states still struggling with democracy.
From a military perspective, the first impression is that the Russians laid an effective "strategic ambush" for Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvilli, inciting anti-government attacks in South Ossetia by local militias and then responding to the Georgian offensive with a well-planned and rehearsed offensive of their own. Even when viewed through the imperfect lens of news media scrambling to catch up to events, military experts understand that the joint and combined-arms attacks Russia staged in the opening hours of the war were anything but spontaneous. For historians, a retrospective on Nazi Germany's offensive to "protect" the Sudaten Czechs shows a striking similarity of purpose and method.
The Georgian armed forces were obviously not prepared for the Russian counteroffensive. Having recently purged older, Soviet-trained officers from its top commands, the Georgian military lacks doctrine, cohesion and experience; U.S. military assistance has been focused on preparing Georgian soldiers for duty alongside U.S. forces in Iraq, not in larger-scale, combined-arms warfare, and it shows. At this writing, the Georgian armed forces have virtually disappeared, their patrol boats sunk at their docks and their infantry collecting somewhere near the capitol city; Russian forces have broken contact and breakaway militias are rampaging in areas in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
To observers familiar with the sight of Russian troops riding to battle on the back decks of BMPs, the Russian campaign looked like previous warfare in Afghanistan and Czchneya. But in this case, the familiar Soviet-style, firepower-intensive armed campaign was preceded by a sophisticated cyberattack against Georgian information systems and, more ominously, a prelaid global information campaign that both advanced the Russian argument for its right to intervene and fed both the news media and wavering Western politicians with trumped-up details of Georgian atrocities. Look for the information campaign to intensify as Russian troops settle into positions in Georgia, where their location will become negotiable in the next phase, which will clearly be to drive the pro-Western Saakashvilli government from power. The Russians have "got" modern war, however outdated their "kinetic" operations may appear. In their operational concept, the information war preceded, and is superior to, actual combat operations on the land and sea. Western military authorities, whose ability to influence information operations of this type are nonexistent, can only look on in frustration.
What does this mean for the U.S. and for U.S. strategy? The first, obvious, lesson is that great-power competition is back, and it is not only with a remote and only vaguely challenging trading partner like China. Russia is now an active menace. Whether "old Europe" quite understands the problem is for the moment moot -- the newly-formed ex-Soviet democracies have the message loud and clear, as their timely and courageous support for the Saakashvilli government shows. As scholar Fred Kagan said recently, there is a "new axis" of anti-Russian democracies around the edge of the old Soviet empire. Supporting those states and securing their future must be a top priority for the U.S. and NATO, while Russia passes through the Putin phase and perhaps into a more benign future -- the encouragement of which should be the top priority for U.S. and Western diplomacy. If this sounds like containment, well, it is.
For military strategy, the U.S. should immediately revamp its foreign military assistance programs to those countries, including a post-invasion Georgia. The intent of U.S. aid now should not be aimed not only at preparing forces for low-intensity conflict -- because most of these states have their own problems with breakaway militias and extremist terrorism -- but also at deterring Russian high-intensity, combined-arms attacks. Advanced integrated air-defenses (the Georgians had none), antitank munitions, precision weapons all must be provided so that Russia can no longer plan a walkover like the one we have witnessed. Military assistance groups should be stationed in frontline states, and m military exercises conducted calibrated to bolster the defensive capabilities of local armies. The Russians will cry foul, but their military authorities will understand what they are seeing -- no more easy campaigns. Military aid must include methods and training in our best techniques for computer network defense, a move that -- given the global nature of computer networks -- will integrate our allies' defenses with ours.
Finally the U.S. government, even in this time of political transition, must be steadfast in exposing for the world's media the true story of what is happening here. This is not a time to surrender the information field to the Russians in a futile effort to "protect sources" or surrender to reflexive classification. The war for history has started, and the Russians are already leading by several laps. Given the nature of an inquisitive and pervasive worldwide news media -- that the Russians so far have manipulated brilliantly -- the truth will eventually out, but only if the Western democracies insure that the facts are out there.