(John Laughland for RIA Novosti) - As the dust settles on the conflict in South Ossetia - and as it vanishes progressively from the headlines in the Western press - one thing has become overwhelmingly clear. It is that Georgia will now never join NATO and that the balance of power in the world has therefore shifted radically as a result of this little six-day war.
During the conflict, many people in the Russian media (and in the country at large) seemed obsessed with the negative coverage of Russia's position in the Western media. It is certainly true that the media all over Western Europe and North America gave heavy prominence to the Georgian position and was very anti-Russian in tone. It is also true that this negative coverage comes after a long period of deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, which seemed to reach a new peak just after the South Ossetian conflict when Condoleezza Rice travelled to Warsaw to sign the agreement to station the new anti-missile shield in Poland.
On the other hand, while much political reality can be created (or at least influenced) by the virtual reality of TV, it is an inescapable truth of human history that the key questions of politics - especially the one about who has the right to rule - are usually decided by force. In the case of South Ossetia, the West's blandishments against Moscow - whose hypocrisy must be very irritating for Russia's leaders - are in fact nothing but psychological compensation for the fact that Western leaders know, in their heart of hearts, that they cannot and will not fight Russia over Georgia.
Russia is the second most heavily armed country in the world, and a serious nuclear power. The West, meanwhile, is fighting protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which mean that its hands are tied behind its back. If the NATO states are not prepared to go to war with the Russian army over that small parcel of territory around Tskhinvali of which few people in the West had even heard before the violence erupted, then Georgia can never join the Alliance because NATO membership means precisely that members must fight for each others' territorial integrity.
More than ten years of promises that Georgia would be invited to join NATO have therefore just been quietly shelved (even if the West does not admit this openly). Moreover, not only Georgia's accession but the whole process of further NATO expansion is now on hold. If Georgia does not join NATO, then nor will Ukraine. The accession of the two Black Sea states to the Atlantic Alliance was part of the same strategic plan which went up in smoke as soon as Russian troops entered Georgia.
It is no coincidence, indeed, that tensions within the pro-Western bloc in Ukraine itself exploded just after the Ossetian conflict. President Yushchenko has accused his own prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, of treason for trying to curry support in Moscow for her own presidential ambitions. In a startlingly Soviet-style reflex, he has announced that he will set his secret services loose on her. Madame Timoshenko denies the charges, of course, but she has no doubt concluded, like many Ukrainians, that her vast and mainly Russian-speaking country can in fact never be part of a military alliance whose nuclear missiles are directed against fellow Russians within the Russian Federation itself.
This is a historic turning point. Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West has expanded its influence ever deeper into former Soviet territory. The Caucasus was one focal point for this expansion because of the oil pipelines bringing Caspian oil to the West. Russian troops are now within an hour's drive of that pipeline and there is nothing the West can do about it. It is also doubtful, incidentally, whether the famous missile shield, which Russian leaders rightly interpret as an anti-Russian project, can ever actually work. The project of NATO expansion having now been arrested, perhaps for ever, the aim of creating a unipolar world around the world-wide projection of American power is now a thing of the past.
Of course all this was foreseen long ago - in song, and by a Georgian. NATO is now like Bulat Okudjava's famous soldier: "He wanted to transform the world so that everyone would be happy. But he only hung by a thread for, you see, he was in fact made out of paper."
John Laughland is a British historian and political analyst, and director of studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.