THE UN headquarters on New York's East River was supposed to have been in darkness on Friday night, the diplomats tucked up at home to watch the fireworks of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Instead, they were in their offices long into the night.
As overhead television screens outside the Security Council showed Russian tanks invading Georgia, Russian and Georgian envoys traded insults.
Russia's irritation with Georgia dates to November 2003 when pro-democracy protestors took to the streets in the so- called Rose Revolution to denounce an election rigged by pro-Moscow politicians.
The result was a new election and victory for American-educated Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who dropped Georgia's alliance with Moscow in return for one with Washington.
Another Russian neighbour, Ukraine, followed suit in circumstances similar to its Orange Revolution the following year.
One of the mantras of Vladimir Putin's rule was that Russia should have a "sphere of influence" over neighbouring states, a term many in the West assumed had been rendered redundant with the advent of globalisation.
"Russia is fond of saying: Georgia is in our backyard," said David Satter, an analyst with America's Hoover Institution. "But it's reasonable to ask what difference does that make? These (nations] are independent countries that have the right to chart their own future."
Since the Rose Revolution, the Kremlin has concluded that if it cannot control Georgia, it can at least cause trouble by supporting its two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
These enclaves were carved out in sharp and brutal wars with Georgia's forces in the early 1990s.
Protected by a ring of Russian troops, their leaders have refused offers from Georgia to drop their independence demands in return for autonomy.
In April, Putin, furious that the West had recognised Kosovo's breakaway from Serbia, signed a decree recognising both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
For the Georgians it was a red rag to a bull.
Throughout the early summer both separatists and the Georgian army built up their forces around the mountainous borders of the two tiny enclaves.
Last week fighting broke out. After first calling a ceasefire, Georgia used the element of surprise to launch a snap invasion, sending armoured units into the enclave and reportedly capturing the capital, Tskhinvali.
When the first emergency meeting of the Security Council ended in deadlock in the early hours of Friday, Russia sent in the tanks.
But Russia's decision to invade has little to do with the welfare of South Ossetia's 70,000 inhabitants.
In fact, it is a powerplay in what many are now calling the New Cold War.
It was appropriate that this struggle should flare to life in the Caucasus, because this region of bubbling ethnic tensions is really home to a battle not for ideology, but for oil.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, or BTC, is lauded as a miracle of modern engineering. Costing 2bn, it will eventually carry a million barrels of oil a day across more than a thousand miles of some of the world's most inhospitable terrain.
It is also the only pipeline linking Central Asia's vast oil and gas fields – second only to the Middle East's in size – to the West. All other pipes pass through Russia or Iran, putting western customers at the mercy of their regimes.
For the United States, the key to the pipeline has been cementing firm relationships with the three states – Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan – through which the pipeline passes.
America has given generous aid to all three nations. It turned a blind eye to Turkish raids on Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq, was silent about rigged elections in Azerbaijan, and since 2002 has had US troops in Georgia training the locals. In April it backed Georgia's call to join Nato.
But for Putin, a former KGB colonel, and his hand-picked (some would say puppet) successor Dmitri Medvedev, the pipeline stands in the way of Russia's imperial ambitions.
"Russia has resented this break-up (of the old Soviet Union]," said former US defence secretary William Cohen. "They have been looking for an opportunity to wean people back."
Moscow has also torn up the old post-Cold War consensus whereby the war in Bosnia was brought to a negotiated end. In recent months, Russia, joined by China, has blocked UN attempts to halt the fighting in Darfur and impose an arms embargo on Zimbabwe.
Upping the ante still further, Russia has claimed the North Pole for itself by planting a flag four miles down on the seabed, and last week mooted setting up a bomber refuelling base in Cuba.
But if the Kremlin set up the powder keg in South Ossetia, it was Georgia which supplied the match. Frustrated by South Ossetia's refusal to join talks on autonomy, and knowing world leaders would be off balance as they headed to Beijing, Tbilisi sent in the troops, triggering Moscow's angry response.
Complicating the search for a solution is that the West is itself split on a response. America wants to take a hard line. European leaders are more circumspect, in part because they fear a crisis if Russia cuts off gas supplies as it did with Ukraine. Germany's Angela Merkel has refused to consider Georgia's admission to Nato until its "internal disputes" are at an end.
The current fighting could well turn into a stalemate in the coming days. Moscow knows that if it tries to squeeze its tanks along the one mountain road that leads to Tblisi they can be picked off by American trained and equipped Georgian forces.