With its invasion of Georgia, Russia has announced to the world that its superpower status is back. The Kremlin is once more flexing its military muscles -- the same way it did between 1945 and 1991, and the results are turning out to be just as bloody. There are already hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded and refugees.
The tiny region of South Ossetia, located in the Caucuses mountains of southern Russia, is at the center of these tensions. It is a complicated conflict within conflicts. Georgia, which broke away from the Soviet Union after its collapse in 1991, tried to reclaim ownership of South Ossetia, which had separated from its territory about the same time. In another brutal war that ended in 1993, rebellious South Ossetia, which has about 70,000 people (about a fifth are ethnic Georgians) and is about one and a half times the size of the tiny principality of Luxembourg, had successfully defended itself against Georgia’s first attempt to reincorporate it.
And this time things appear no different. After experiencing initial success in capturing South Ossetia’s capital, leaving sections burning and in ruins, Georgia is now in headlong retreat, facing a ruthless Russian invasion and asking for a ceasefire. But Russia appears deaf to the ceasefire appeal. On Sunday, its tanks were reportedly following the retreating Georgians into their country and closing in on Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Russian planes were also bombing targets in Georgia, while units from Russia’s Black Seas Fleet took position off of Abkhazia.
The conflict has the potential to spread like a wildfire. Abkhazia, another area that seceded from, and fought against, Georgia in the early 1990s, has now offered to help South Ossetia by opening a second front. It has already started operations against Georgian forces.
So why is this happening? Tensions had been festering between South Ossetia and Georgia for some time. Skirmishes had been going on but had escalated recently. This escalation, in turn, caused America to send 1,000 troops to Georgia in July to conduct joint exercises with Georgian forces.
One of the triggers for the conflict exploding now, however, occurred outside the Caucuses when western countries recognized Kosovo, formerly part of Serbia. This diplomatic manoeuvre upset the Kremlin, which has refused to recognize the new entity. It has also not forgotten that a weak Russia had to watch helplessly in 1999 as an American-led NATO bombed its historical Balkan ally into submission.
Now in retaliation, Russia sees the opportunity to inflict the same fate on America’s Caucasian ally. It reasons that if Serbia is divisible, then so is Georgia. Like the Albanians in Kosovo, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians should have the right to secede if they do not want to remain part of Georgia. And they don’t. As proof, many people in these two rebellious areas, as many as 90 per cent according to one report, have taken Russian citizenship.
Georgia’s desire for NATO membership was also a factor in this weekend’s Russian response. Putin has spoken very strongly against Georgian entry into the western alliance, seeing it as a threatening attempt to encircle Russia as well as an western intrusion into its traditional sphere of influence. This is also how the Kremlin regards the American military bases in Central Asia and NATO’s eastern expansion to its borders.
By attacking Georgia, Russia may have crushed its neighbor’s NATO hopes. The ruthless Russian invasion showed Europe’s more reluctant members they may eventually wind up in a bloody Caucasian war if they accept Georgia into their organization.
In reality, Russia wants the United States out of the Caucuses completely and probably regards its Georgia invasion as the first step toward this goal. America has built a pipeline from oil and gas-rich Kazakhstan through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey that breaks Russia’s stranglehold on supplying energy to Europe, lessening Europe’s dependence on Moscow. And it plans to build another.
It is difficult to judge western-oriented Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s reasons for entering into this fierce, terrible and possibly suicidal military adventure. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had previously visited Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and spoke against Russia’s support of the breakaway areas, which Saakashvili perhaps interpreted as a green light to start the war, using the Olympics as a cover.
But according to one source, Georgia last year had only a 22,000 strong army, parts of it American trained, and 200 hundred tanks. The Abkhazian forces alone have about half those numbers, backed by Russia’s tens of thousands. Saakashvili badly miscalculated if he thought he could quickly recover the disputed lost territory and restore Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Most likely Saakashvili, who studied in the United States, is counting on American intervention, since he has already asked for American help. But it is questionable whether an America already deeply engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan is willing to confront Russia militarily. A senior state department official indirectly indicated this, telling the New York Times: “There is no possibility of drawing NATO or the international community into this.”
But there is another reason besides current political ones that prompted the Kremlin’s military action. By invading Georgia, Russia is also following its age-old historical pattern. When Moscow is weak, as it was after 1917 and in 1991, the states on its periphery break away. But when the center is strong, as it is again becoming now, it sets out to reincorporate those very same peripheral states. “Georgia is only the start,” said Saakashvili in an interview with a German newspaper six weeks ago. “Tomorrow it will be the Ukraine, then the Baltic states, then Poland.”
While America has been fighting the war against Islamic terror, Russia has bided its time, solidifying its power at home and grabbing as much energy resources as possible. Once again, Russia has chosen to show its totalitarian and expansionist strength for all the world to see. America, meanwhile, with hands full in the terror war, appears only able to urge restraint -- while one of its key allies potentially faces its own ruin and loss of freedom.