Ultimately, Georgia was rash and unwise to send in its troops to try to subdue South Ossetia, although that action is understandable. The lessons learned from Russia's incursion into Georgia, and the reactions to it, should guide U.S.
First, the U.S. should stand firm and tell the Russians that any attempt to reabsorb Georgia into Russia would be treated as an attack on a NATO member because (1) earlier this year NATO voted to extend membership to Georgia, and (2) Georgia has worked with the multinational force in Afghanistan led by the U.S.
Second, the U.S. should now take full notice -- Putin wasn't blowing smoke for the past seven years. The Russians really do believe that Ukraine, the Baltic States, Georgia, et al. should be part of Russia and will pressure those countries to be quiescent client states. Another reason to fast-track NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia (NATO protection already extends to the Baltics, thankfully).
More wisdom from James Robbins (see link in title):
The international community reacted with swift condemnation of Russia’s actions, particularly because the response was so decisive and reached beyond the immediate area in contention. (A lesson learned from Kosovo — if NATO could strike the Serbian capital of Belgrade, why shouldn’t Russia bomb the Tbilisi airport?) Also at stake is the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline that carries one percent of the world’s oil supply. By destroying it Russia would generate higher oil prices, gravely hurt the Georgian economy, maybe convince countries in the Caspian region to route their oil through Russia. But Moscow cannot be so blatant as to simply demolish the pipeline . . . Given the tension over world energy supplies such a move would be somewhat more serious than the matter of who controls a mountainous area in central Georgia.
But international umbrage is wasted on Russia. They really don’t care what anyone thinks, and their veto power in the Security Council nullifies the possibility of meaningful U.N. action. Russia used force because they knew they could. No country would intervene militarily to stop them, especially the United States. And this is not because the U.S. is tied up in other conflicts; America would not send troops to that war zone even if we were at peace. There is not enough at stake to risk direct conflict with Russia. Meanwhile Georgia is pulling all 2,000 of its troops from Iraq, with the U.S. providing the rapid airlift, and one hopes we will do more to shore up our Coalition partners, such as give materiel or intelligence support.
Yet, short of fighting, there is a way the United States can take meaningful action. Some argue that the events of the past week demonstrate the unsuitability of Georgia for NATO membership, that the country’s leadership is too erratic and their neighborhood too dangerous. On the contrary, this is a perfect opportunity for the member nations of NATO to show their resolve. At the April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, the leadership agreed that Georgia would become a member of the alliance. It is critical to honor this commitment, and in fact to put Georgia on the fast track for membership. The member states must demonstrate to Russia that Moscow does not hold veto power over which countries may enter NATO. And this would be a fitting show of gratitude for Georgia’s participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Furthermore, it would cause Russia to think very clearly about the implications of future aggressive moves against Georgia, particularly actions outside the areas already occupied by Russian “peacekeepers.”
Of course, Obama issued a weak statement and called for both parties to use restraint. McCain unequivocally told the Russians to turn around and get out of Georgia. Compare their responses here. More proof that Obama is just another Jimmy Carter.
N.B. -- I eliminated Chechnya from the list of outside countries that Russia believes should be re-absorbed. Chechnya is part of Russia, unlike Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, etc.