It seems that Russia will be content to just annex the two disputed territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and leave Georgia otherwise intact, if chastened. (Anyway, that’s my prediction for the outcome of the peace talks.) If so, it’s an example of how limited Great Power aims are these days. The likes of Stalin would not have hesitated to, at an absolute minimum, install a puppet regime in Tblisi. Two tiny, poor provinces is almost symbolic, just a flexing of muscles and a reminder that “We could do worse”.
Of course, it would be a considerable prestige victory for the Russians, and a re-establishment of their own sphere of interest; but these are very limited aims, compared to the great wars of the twentieth century. Perhaps we will see another century like the nineteenth, where the Great Powers jockey for power and influence, but the actual wars are pretty small and mainly fought against targets not very able to defend themselves. Although that would be ok in the short run, it’s worth remembering how the nineteenth century ended: In a total war, a war that lasted the better part of a century and ground all the empires of the long peace into dust. Of the major powers on the outbreak of war in 1914, only Russia remains in anything like its original form, and that 70-year history of revolution and disaster is hardly something you would wish on any nation you liked.
The peace signed at Westphalia ended (two-bit dynastic conflicts and small colonial wars aside) in the Napoleonic Wars – a long century later. The peace of 1815 was shattered in 1914, another long century, and not truly restored until 1990, well within living memory. If this new peace – and let’s not kid ourselves; this is peace, by any historical standard, Iraq and Kosovo and Georgia notwithstanding – lasts another century then the next outbreak should see the children of my own generation in charge, or just beginning to hand over power to our grandchildren. Let’s hope they are wiser than our grandparents.