Russia's war with Georgia would seem to return to the Cold War days. That's a fundamental misreading of the situation. While the Cold War featured the United States and the USSR facing off over world wide alliances and a divided Europe, it was an anomaly. An anomaly in that each "empire" was not really an Empire. But rather client states that required a good deal of military advisors, cash, discounted commodities, and all sorts of civilian assistance to keep compliant regimes in power. Think of it as a reverse Empire of sorts. Instead of money and resources flowing inward to Moscow and Washington, money and resources flowed out. To Cuba, or Greece, or Turkey, or Iran, or Egypt. Sometimes, as in the case of Egypt, or Greece, from both sides depending on who was ascendant locally.
The fall of the USSR coincided with the fall of oil prices. Gorbachev could literally not afford to pay for the secret police of the USSR's client states, and the rest was history. Regime after regime fell, as there just weren't enough secret police being paid (along with the military) to crush the revolts. This is not to discount the bravery or sacrifice of those protesters who toppled the regime, but explains why the USSR and the regimes themselves did not act the way they did in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. There simply was not enough money.
Enter Vladimir Putin. Taking over from disgraced drunkard Boris Yeltsin, Putin was and is an able and ruthless man. You don't rise to the top of the KGB, then FSB hierarchy, without being both ruthless and producing results. Whether it's Alexander Litvinenko drinking Polonium-210 laced tea, or Anna Politkovskaya shot to death in an elevator, or Ivan Safronov falling to his death out a window, Putin is a man of action. His threats are not idle, and his enemies and critics mostly dead.
Putin is a man who understands, more than anyone else, the violence gap.
The West, today, is simply unable to cope with, and cannot respond to, extremely violent and well-organized men. Men like Osama bin Laden, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Or Vladimir Putin. Almost no Western leaders has any direct experience with men like these, men who kill. Not for passion, or insanity. But profit. Men who kill directly. By both taking up the pistol and firing into a prisoner's head, as alleged with Ahmadinejad, and by direct order. These men understand that there's no reason at all to do all the dreadfully boring and very difficult things that are required to generate and maintain wealth. Building infrastructure, educating the populace, having a fair and level economic playing field, keeping religion out of politics, a fair and transparent rule of law, suppressing cronyism, and more. All that is for the West, fat and comfortable and peaceable.
No, what these men each in their own way is exploiting is their own ability, through the people they command, to inflict lots of violence on fat Western targets to extort concessions. Extort them with no real consequences.
Osama hopes to extort concessions leading to the World Wide Caliphate. This is unrealistic, but he has taken advantage of the violence gap (he can inflict far more violence than Western Society, excepting the US post-9/11, can retaliate with). Denmark, or Sweden, or Norway, or Spain cannot retaliate with violence directed at Osama and his followers, much less his protectors in Pakistan's military and intelligence circles, even if a city block is blown apart. Even if those nations had the means they would lack the will to retaliate, and in any event lack both means and will. Osama takes advantage of that gap to conduct terror attacks, as do his followers around the globe.
Ahmadinejad hopes to use nuclear weapons to exploit that violence gap. Not only against the United States, but also in Europe where already Iran is positioning itself as Europe's Muslims protector. If Muslims in say, Denmark demanded the execution of Danish cartoonists for the Mohammed cartoons, and Iran backed that demand with nuclear threats, what could Denmark do? Nothing but submit. The United States certainly will not go to nuclear war with Iran to save Danes from nuclear destruction, much less save Danish cartoonists. Nor will France or Britain which have their own problems. Conveniently this makes Iran, and Ahmadinejad, the rival of Osama bin Laden for title of "Leader of the Muslims" in the struggle to establish the World Caliphate.
But Vladimir Putin is a man fully apart in exploiting the violence gap. He has no particular ideology. No world-domination goals. He merely exploits internally the desire among Russians for order, discipline, and leadership along with restoration of Russian power, with the gangster instinct of the KGB. Putin's aim in making war on Georgia is not "freedom" or "liberty" for the South Ossetians. Rather it is crushing Georgian independence, and particularly the non-Russian controlled oil pipeline, the Baku-Tibilsi-Ceyhan pipeline that bypasses Russian control. Crushing this independence makes nearly all oil and gas moving westwards to Europe, move through Russian controlled pipelines. Which can be turned off and on at a whim.
Putin understands the power of the gun. Which can be used to simply take from those lacking guns (or enough of them). Georgia is a useful example, just as the thugs who chase the head of BP's investment in Russia was an example to the West of how things run in Putin's Russia.
Europe is a very rich, old, and weak place. With a lean and hungry Russia on it's eastern doorstep. Lacking any ability or will to defend itself, and any meaningful desire to re-arm, only the United States keeps from simply annexing whatever it wants in Europe. Most Americans have a hard time comprehending that Europe has essentially no military at all. Almost all European spending goes to the Welfare state. This problem only got worse after the fall of the USSR. It's gap, in the ability to inflict violence, with it's neighbor to the east, invites Putin's strategy.
The United States is obviously not going to go to war to save Georgia. While it may be costly for Putin to roll up Georgian independence, he has no choice but to do so, otherwise his critics at home who matter, that is men just like him, will arrange something along the lines of Litvinenko's Polonium-210 tea. Having done so, and made an explicit example of Georgia (along with the failure of NATO, a hollow and make-believe force, to do anything meaningful about it), places like the Ukraine, or Romania, or Moldova, or Hungary, or Bulgaria, or Poland, or the Baltics will simply fall in line.
But they will not be the classic Cold War client states. Rather, they will be tributary nations sending money and resources to Russia. Which lacks the ability to gain wealth any other way.
That this war also halts the slide in oil prices that coincided with Bush's desire to drill in the US, is a bonus. Russia, like other failed states (Saddam and Iran come to mind) lives and dies by the commodity price of oil. On a daily basis. These nations cannot survive when oil is at a price that makes the West prosperous.
Suggesting strongly that sooner or later, the West and Russia (and it's ally, Iran) will go to war over the price of oil, globally. While Europe may be fading into old age, demographically, and exists as a permanently disarmed dependent of the United States, the US is a different case. Both younger demographically and unwilling to live lives of poverty sure to follow oil permanently at $150 a barrel or higher.
Sadly, Vladimir Putin may find that the violence gap is not permanent, and in the end "fighting spirit" as the Imperial Japanese, Wehrmacht, and Al Qaeda in Iraq suicide bombers found out, is no substitute for resources, will, and ability.