Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates:
The Russians used Kosovo’s declaration of independence (it had been a part of Yugoslavia and had long historical ties to Serbia) in February 2008, which the United States and Europeans supported and a pro-Serb Russia opposed, as a pretext to turn up the temperature on Georgia. The West’s logic in supporting Kosovo’s independence, said the Russians, ought to apply as well to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin in April said Russia might possibly recognize the independence of the two provinces. On April 21, Saakashvili telephoned Putin to demand that Russia reverse course on recognition and cited statements by Western governments opposing it. Putin had used highly colloquial Russian in telling Saakashvili where he could put the Western statements. Soon thereafter Georgia mobilized its troops, and in response, Russia sent 400 paratroopers and a howitzer battery to staging areas near the cease-fire line. Acts of violence in both provinces increased during the summer. On August 7, Georgia launched a massive artillery barrage and incursion to retake the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
The next day Russian forces poured into South Ossetia, routed the Georgians, and drove deep into Georgian territory, a punitive attack aimed at the destruction of the Georgian military infrastructure. They attacked military facilities—especially those that had been certified by NATO—and destroyed coastal patrol boats, military equipment, communications, and a number of villages. The deputy chief of the Russian general staff said at the time that the Russian mission was to weaken Georgia’s military, but plainly the Russians were also sending a warning to other governments in Central Asia (and Ukraine) about the risks of trying to integrate with NATO.
The Russians had baited a trap, and the impetuous Saakashvili walked right into it. The Russians, Putin in particular, wanted to reassert Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, including in the Caucasus. I was asked by a reporter if I trusted Vladimir Putin “anymore”? I responded, “’Anymore’ is an interesting word. I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.” After meeting with Putin in 2001, President Bush had said he looked into Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul.” I said to some of my colleagues privately that I’d looked into Putin’s eyes and, just as I expected, had seen a stone-cold killer.