Russia's pounding of Georgia means it will use force to protect all 25 million Russians in states that belonged to the Soviet Union
By David Blair, Diplomatic Editor Telegraph
Last Updated: 6:23PM BST 11 Aug 2008
By seizing the opportunity to pound Georgia with air strikes and military incursions, Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister, is sending an emphatic message with global consequences.
The curtain has fallen on the era when Nato steadily expanded into Eastern Europe and onwards to embrace former republics of the Soviet Union - and Russia was able to respond with nothing more than bluster.
Moreover, Mr Putin has demonstrated that the Kremlin will use force to protect the 25 million Russians who inhabit the Soviet Union's successor states, well beyond the mother country's borders.
The importance of this message cannot be exaggerated. Whether the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's two breakaway regions, are genuinely Russian or merely the recipients of passports recently issued from Moscow matters little. Dmitry Medvedev made the crucial point last week when he stated that as Russia's president, he was obliged to protect the "security and dignity" of all Russian citizens, wherever they may live.
Countries ranging from Latvia to Moldova to Ukraine have large Russian minorities. If their presence justified Russian intervention in Georgia, might the same happen in these countries? Is the fighting in Georgia merely a prelude to what lies ahead in nations close to the heart of Europe?
Some Russians in the "Near Abroad" - the term used by Moscow's officials to refer to former Soviet Republics - inhabit clearly defined enclaves, uncannily similar to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russians of Moldova have carved out the self-styled "Dniester Republic", a small, lawless region which Moscow effectively controls.
Elsewhere, Russian minorities have no enclaves, but they still enjoy significant influence simply because of their size. The 900,000 Russians in Latvia comprise well over a third of the population and the 500,000 in Estonia account for about 30 per cent.
Ukraine is the most crucial link in the chain. This aspiring member of both Nato and the European Union has 11 million Russians, concentrated in its eastern regions and particularly in the Crimea, where they comprise about 70 per cent of the population.
Jonathan Eyal, the head of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said that Russia's key priority was to prevent Ukraine from joining Nato, but further military intervention was unlikely.
"They don't need to do the same elsewhere simply because what is happening in Georgia has already driven home the message that what happens in these Russian enclaves, wherever they are, is for Russia to determine and no-one else," he said.
Mr Eyal said that Moscow's operation in Georgia would serve as a "deterrent" to any other country with a Russian minority. "The message is 'you do not touch any of them because the Russian military is determined to defend them even if it means crossing an international border with their tanks."
Moscow had "indirectly given a military guarantee" to Russian minorities across the former Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine.
This goes beyond merely guaranteeing their safety and the status of any enclaves they may have created. It also amounts to Moscow threatening force against any former Soviet Republics aspiring to Nato membership.
Ukraine was officially promised admission to Nato during the Alliance's last summit in April, although Russian objections ensured that no timetable was given.
When Mr Putin sent the tanks into Georgia, Mr Eyal there was "absolutely no doubt that one of his key calculations was Ukraine".
In essence, Mr Putin was seeking to deter Ukraine from pressing ahead with its plan to join Nato - and Mr Eyal believes that Russia's plan has succeeded.
If so, the balance of power in Europe has fundamentally changed and Russia has, through the use of force against Georgia, seized the power to veto Nato's future membership.
Ukraine is by far the most important of the former Soviet republics. Columns of Russian tanks hundreds of miles from its borders may now have changed its future.