The German statesman Otto von Bismarck once predicted that a new European war would start with "some damn silly affair in the Balkans".
Substitute "Caucasus" for "Balkans" and a new Cold War may have begun with a squabble over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the formerly obscure regions of Georgia that every European has suddenly heard of. If future historians look back on this month as opening a new era of confrontation between Russia and the West, Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s youthful, headstrong president, will achieve immortality.
This impulsive, charismatic lawyer will go down as the founding father of the Second Cold War. Just as Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the unwitting author of the First World War, so Mr Saakashvili may be remembered as the man who ushered in a new chapter of global turmoil. And unlike the hapless Austrian aristocrat, whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered war in 1914, Mr Saakashvili would have to live with the consequences.
Only a month ago, Georgia’s president could have walked through any European capital without being recognised. Today, he is one of the world’s most famous men. With a fluent grasp of English and four other languages, "Misha", as Mr Saakashvili’s friends call him, is a media-friendly leader par excellence.
During his brutal war with Russia, he found time to brief the world’s press every day, staging a blizzard of conference calls, set-piece appearances and late night chats. Mr Saakashvili was quick to grasp that popular sympathy against the Russian Bear and his own openness to the media were the only assets that Georgia could deploy against the Kremlin’s military machine. His brand of American English duly became familiar across the world.
As such, Mr Saakashvili was a crucial national asset for Georgia. Yet there are also advantages to having leaders who avoid these crises in the first place. With all the arrogance and, say critics, wilful blindness of a man convinced of his own brilliance, Mr Saakashvili seems to thrive on crisis.
He was born in 1967 to parents drawn from the Soviet Union’s intelligentsia. Mr Saakashvili’s father was a doctor and his mother an academic. While Georgia was a Soviet Republic, firmly under Moscow’s thumb, teenagers rebelled by seizing every chance to revel in Western culture. A devotion to rock music and levy jeans was the equivalent of a protest against the Kremlin’s rule.
Mr Saakashvili was at university in Kiev when the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia became independent in 1991. Good fortune made him exactly the right age to embark on a political career in the post-Soviet era.
First came a US government scholarship taking him to Columbia Law School in New York. Then Mr Saakashvili spent a year as an intern with a New York law firm before returning to his homeland.
President Eduard Shevardnadze, then Georgia’s ruler, was gathering his country’s brightest and best to build a post-Soviet future. Mr Saakashvili entered parliament as an ally of the president at the age of 28. Before his 33rd birthday, he was in the cabinet as justice minister.
Mr Shevardnadze had achieved global fame as Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister and the man who did the diplomatic heavy lifting to end the Cold War. But he was a wayward and deeply flawed ruler of his native Georgia.
Mr Saakashvili fell out with the president over the government’s endemic corruption, which he accused Mr Shevardnadze of failing to address. After resigning from the cabinet in 2001, Mr Saakashvili became the president’s leading critic, founding the United National Movement as a right-wing opposition party.
When parliamentary elections were held in 2003, Mr Saakashvili claimed to have won the contest and accused the president of rigging the poll. Thousands of Georgians answered his call to fill the streets with protesters and the hapless Mr Shevardnadze was duly toppled in the Rose Revolution.
Mr Saakashvili formally took office as Georgia’s president in January 2004, shortly after his 36th birthday. Europe’s youngest leader declared that his destiny was to take Georgia into Nato and the European Union and transform his country into a fully-fledged Western democracy.
From the very beginning, however, Russia had other ideas. South Ossetia and Abkhazia had broken away from Georgia as early as 1992 and the two enclaves lived in a twilight zone of illegality and smuggling, propped up by Russian money and protected by Moscow’s troops in the guise of "peacekeepers".
Mr Saakashvili wanted to bring these enclaves back into Georgia to stabilise his country and smooth the path to Nato and EU membership. This was exactly why Russia had no interest in solving the dispute. By keeping Abhazia and South Ossetia on the boil, Moscow tried to deter Nato from admitting Mr Saakashvili.
But western observers have no doubt that Georgia’s leader was "his own worst enemy". Last year, Mr Saakashvili responded to opposition demonstrations in his capital, Tbilisi, by declaring a state of emergency and using force against the protests. This undermined his claim to be a democrat and made it far easier for Nato leaders to deny him a firm plan for membership during their summit in Bucharest in April.
All the while, Russia was thirsting to teach the impetuous young Georgian a lesson. In particular, the Kremlin wanted to goad him into trying to seize the breakaway regions by force.
For at least two weeks before the outbreak of this month’s war, Russian forces made a series of provocative moves. Jet fighters entered Georgian airspace, mysterious gun battles broke out inside South Ossetia.
Mr Saakashvili duly took the bait. On Aug 7, he ordered his forces to secure South Ossetia and bombard targets in its capital, Tskhinvali. The operation was badly planned and inexplicably failed to close the Roki Tunnel providing the region’s crucial link with Russia.
The Kremlin had its pretext and its tanks rolled south, through the Roki Tunnel, and into South Ossetia where they duly defeated Georgia’s tiny army. Mr Saakashvili had walked into a carefully laid trap.
Wars usually begin when one side makes a catastrophic error. Just as the First World War began with a series of mistakes in high summer, so historians may one day trace the cause of the Second Cold War to Mr Saakashvili’s August blunder.